The winter of 1901-02 was a long, wet one for Southwest Washington. But eventually the warm sun of spring was welcomed, crops and wildflowers burst from the ground, and the season became warm and unseasonably dry. As the days lengthened, the hot dry weather continued. By Tuesday, September 12, 1902, it hadn’t rained in 77 days.
In Skamania County that hot September, something happened; no one is quite sure what it was. It might have been sparks from a logging operation, it might have been flames from a hunter’s cooking fire, maybe a farmer clearing land. There were several other fires in the Northwest, so some speculate that sparks from an Oregon fire jumped the Columbia.
Whatever the start was, the strong wind from the east down the gorge caught it up and flung it west. The wind carried the fire up and over the mountains, into Clark County. The sky darkened as the fire spread north and west. The sky was so dark that some thought Mount St. Helens was erupting. Ash fell from the sky. Lanterns were lit in homes, and steamboats on the river used spotlights to find their way. The flames even eventually spread as far south as what is now 192nd Ave. and Fourth Plain.
There was no organized evacuation plan for wildfires—all people could do was run. Soldiers from Vancouver Barracks were ordered out to help as many victims evacuate as possible, but many families and individuals were on their own.