In the past, coastal Oregon Indian people often set fires – annually in camas and tarweed fields, and hazel patches every few years. They probably did the same for bear-grass patches. These regular fires cleared out dead plant material, reinvigorated the soils, and were generally low temperature fires so that mature trees did not burn.
However, every so often, the fires weren’t so controlled and small. Sometimes, then as now, devastating forest fires ravaged the land. There were a few recorded in the 19th century. William Smith, Alsea, told Leo Frachtenberg of his memories of surviving a terrible forest fire as child (See Alsea Texts, page 213, on blog sidebar). His family had been visiting people at Siuslaw. They were heading back home, during a terrible fire. It was so smokey it was dark at mid-day. The went down to the beach at Heceta Head, and camped there while fire raged all around them. All kinds of animals, some with singed fur, came down to the beach as well. They stayed there for days until the fire died down. They headed back down to the Siuslaw River, and Smith saw ashes all over, pine trees near the river had all burned. They visited for awhile with Siuslaw people who also had stayed on the beach. Smith said that the people at the mouth of the Siuslaw river were all right, because two medicine men had danced every night. He said “they wanted to find out what happened all over the world, especially whence the fire originated.” Eventually Smith’s family headed back north again to the Alsea River.
It’s also said that the Native oysters of Coos Bay, Ostrea lurida, had died out after a great fire and the bay was choked with enough silt it smothered the oyster beds.
The stories of devastating forest fires worked their way into myth, of great ‘fire winds’ and people had to hide in the mud, or in seal paunches. These stories were known to Jim Buchanan, Frank Drew and Lottie Evanoff. Jim Buchanan told a told a story to Frachtenberg about ‘The Fire Wind’ (See Coos Texts page 53, blog sidebar). The story begins “One morning a hot wind blew. It blew from the west. The wind there was getting hotter.” People ran to crouch in the mud and those who has seal paunches also brought those to hide under. Five gusts of hot wind came, burning. Then it ended.
Frank version of the story is similar (recounted in Jacobs’ Coos Myth Texts from 1940):
One time long ago there came from the west, in the daytime, five gusts or layers of fire, from the ocean; they swept across the land. It seems as if the people knew just what to do to save themselves. Everything burned. One sheet of fire came east quickly. Seeing it coming the people all went into the river and mud flats, crawling into the west mud and water until the sheetof fire had passed over them. Only the mud did not burn. Four more sheets of flame were evaded the very same way. The people had taken sealion paunches and put into them the infants that could not run. The people could not explains what made the fire come that way, but maybe it was to purify the earth.
In Lottie’s story, the great fire also destroyed a monster that lurked in the valley of Willanch Slough. She said long ago, there was some sort of dangerous creature that lived up that valley, and it would capture and eat people. People could hear its hollering from a long way off. To escape the monster, people had to run straight to the creek and get out that way. If a person tried to run over the land, the monster tracked that person and would catch him or her. But the monster couldn’t get people when they were in the water.
She said that a great fire came from the ocean in waves. For some reason the fire didn’t touch Glasgow (in her retelling of the Flood story, Glasgow was also spared), but it did burn Willanch. The monster was caught in the fire. It tried to climb a tree, but it died anyway. The Indian people later found it ‘when the ashes got cold’. They found the creature’s jaws. Lottie did not know what the thing was, she thought it may have been a ‘lion’.
So the story does make me wonder – could the Willanch monster be based on an actual animal, perhaps a large and aggressive grizzly or cougar that for whatever reason developed a taste for human flesh, or is it a wholly mythological beast? Well, we’ll never know for certain. But I love monster stories, especially in autumn. So when you are going along the east bay, and pass Willanch, it should be all right – the creature is no more.