Washington has had its fair share of natural disasters.
The Yacolt Burn of 1902 swept across 239,000 acres in the state’s southwestern corner and killed more than three dozen people, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The Oso Landslide, the deadliest in U.S. history, killed 43 people a decade ago north of Seattle. Nearly 60 people died in the 1980 eruption of Mount St. Helens, an event that remains etched in the minds of most Americans older than 50.
These are among the deadliest events Washington has ever seen, but none of them destroyed as many homes as the Gray and Oregon Road fires that raged through Spokane County this summer.
The fires began within hours of each other on Aug. 18. The Gray fire burned more than 10,000 acres on the West Plains, and the Oregon Road fire burned more than 11,000 acres near Elk, northwest of Mount Spokane.
By modern standards, the wildfires weren’t impressively large – every year, the West experiences wildfires bigger than 100,000 acres. But they left hundreds homeless and, when considered in tandem, caused more property damage than any fire Washington has ever seen.
Spokane County Assessor Tom Konis said the fires caused the loss of $166 million in assessed property value. That figure captures the value of man-made structures alone and doesn’t take into account land damage.
For context, the largest wildfire to ever hit Washington – the Carlton Complex fire of 2014 – caused the loss of $28 million in assessed value in Okanogan County.
The Gray fire destroyed 240 homes, the second-most in state history. The Oregon Road fire destroyed 126 homes, which ostensibly makes it the state’s fourth-worst by homes lost. Firefighting agencies have only recently begun to keep thorough and standardized structure loss data, so it’s difficult to definitively rank wildfires by property damage.
Only the Carlton Complex fire destroyed more homes than the Gray fire. It was, by most metrics, the state’s worst wildfire.
It began as four fires. The individual burns grew into one and swept across a quarter-million acres between Winthrop and Chelan, in north-central Washington’s Methow Valley. The Carlton Complex fire destroyed 353 homes and remains the largest fire in state history.
A complete structure loss tally for the Carlton Complex fire doesn’t appear to exist. But according to Headwaters Economics, a nonprofit research group that compiled a national wildfire structure loss dataset from federal statistics, it consumed at least 471 structures.
Headwaters Economics says that figure is likely a significant undercount, however. The organization notes on its website that the Federal Emergency Management Agency and state agencies “often conduct their own damage assessments, which can have different tallies than the incident reports.”
The Gray and Oregon Road fires destroyed a combined 366 homes and 710 structures. Washington State Chief Deputy Fire Marshal Bill Slosson said he believes it’s fair to say the Gray and Oregon fires were collectively the most destructive set of fires the state has experienced.
Despite the devastation they caused, the Gray and Oregon Road fires received relatively little national attention.
In all likelihood, that was more a product of timing than indifference. The Hawaii fires, which began in early August, were more surprising and far deadlier. They killed 97 people, whereas Spokane County’s wildfires – either directly or indirectly – killed two.
Catastrophic wildfires also don’t capture the public’s attention like they used to.
In October of 1991, several dozen fires broke out almost simultaneously in Spokane County. They overwhelmed firefighters and destroyed 114 homes. At the time, the firestorm of 1991 was arguably Spokane County’s worst natural disaster. Many Washington firefighters say “Firestorm” alerted policy makers to the dangers of the wildland urban interface – the zone where wilderness and civilization meet.
By today’s standards, “Firestorm” almost seems insignificant. In terms of property destruction, it wouldn’t even rank among the top 10 worst California wildfires of the last decade.
The Gray and Oregon Road fires would have been a historical footnote if they’d happened in California.
For comparison, the Camp fire in northern California killed at least 85 people and destroyed 11,000 homes in 2018.