Sunday, August 27, 2017

Thurston County Fire Destroys Historic Home, Habitat

Above: Looking north over 183rd Street in Rochester, a DC-10 drops red colored flame retardant to help stop the Scatter Creek area fire in south Thurston County on August 22. The historic Miller-Brewer House and barn were destroyed in the fire. Photo courtesy George Ormrod.

By Janine Gates
Little Hollywood

The Scatter Creek area fire near Rochester in south Thurston County burned 485 total acres on August 22, prompting the temporary evacuation of about 100 residents. It also destroyed several homes.

In the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area, the historic Miller-Brewer homestead, built in 1860, and a barn were also destroyed. The homesite was listed on the National Historic Register.

Fire crews from several neighboring counties helped to control the blaze, as did the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, which is leading an investigation of the fire.

Rochester resident George Ormrod became aware of the Rochester – Grand Mound area fire when he heard a DC-10 fly low over his home near 183rd Street. He went out and saw the plane dropping red colored flame retardant.

Hopping on a scooter, he weaved around back roads until stopped by a road block near the Grand Mound cemetery where he spoke with an emergency management official. She informed him that the fire was four miles from his home and he did not need to evacuate the area.

A press release issued on Friday by the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (WDFW) says state wildlife managers are assessing the damage caused by the fire. The south side of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area in Thurston County is closed until further notice.

Owned and managed by WDFW, 345 acres of the Scatter Creek Wildlife Area was burned, and provides a sanctuary for several threatened and endangered wildlife species, including Taylor's checkerspot and mardon skipper butterflies and the Mazama pocket gopher.

The wildlife area is a popular destination for hiking, birdwatching, dog training and upland bird hunting in the south Puget Sound area, said Brian Calkins, regional WDFW wildlife manager.

“This fire is truly a tragedy,” Calkins said. “We put our heart and soul into restoring this remaining piece of rare native prairie, and we know a lot of people are going to feel this loss as much as we do.”

Calkins said fire damage will likely affect some activities scheduled in the burned, southern unit of the wildlife area, including upland bird hunting this fall. However, the 435 acre section of the wildlife area on the north side of Scatter Creek was largely unscathed by the wildfire and remains open to the public.

The WDFW will immediately begin work to restore the burnt landscape south of Scatter Creek. Based on a preliminary estimate, that work will cost more than $1 million.

“We're invested in the future of this area, and we're already starting to plan recovery efforts to protect the prairie for use by animals and people,” Calkins said. “We will be putting a lot of effort into weed control and replanting.”

Scatter Creek is one of 33 state wildlife areas managed by WDFW to provide habitat for fish and wildlife as well as land for outdoor recreation.

Above: The historic Miller-Brewer House and a nearby barn were destroyed in the fire on August 22. Photo Courtesy Hans Littooy.

Miller-Brewer House Historic Site

Hans Littooy, of Olympia, offered Little Hollywood pictures he took on August 16 of the Miller-Brewer House, the oldest home in Thurston County at the Scatter Creek Prairie. 

“I often go to the Scatter Creek southern unit with my dog to enjoy the prairie elements, be it flora or landscape. Prairies are a very special landscape in our area and unfortunately misused,” said Littooy, a retired landscape architect.

A Greek Revival style house, the Miller-Brewer home was historically significant for its box frame construction, a method only used during early pioneer settlement in Washington from 1855 through 1875, and was one of the few examples left in the Pacific Northwest.

Historically, George and Marita Miller traveled north by wagon from Oregon to take a donation land claim on the banks of Scatter Creek in the late 1850s. The house, built by Miller, is set on open prairie land adjacent to Scatter Creek, and shaded by a grove of native oak trees. Miller was a farmer as well as a territorial representative.

The property was sold to Reece Brewer, an old friend of Miller’s who had moved to Grand Mound from Oregon with his wife in 1858. Brewer was an accomplished stockman, sold cream to creameries, and was a member of the Territorial Legislature in 1871. He was also the local postmaster, fulfilling his out of the house, a justice of the peace at Grand Mound, and an elected a Thurston County commissioner in 1888 and 1890. He lost three wives to pneumonia.

In the 1960s, one of Brewer’s children, Fred, sold the property to the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife (formerly the Department of Game) which used the Miller-Brewer House since the 1960s in a variety of capacities. 

It was nominated and placed on the National Historic Register in 1988.

Above: The historic Miller-Brewer barn was destroyed in the fire on August 22. Photo Courtesy Hans Littooy.

Littooy said he and his family came from the Netherlands to Iowa in 1968 and that the house and barn have always fascinated him.   

“I loved those buildings and at one time even dreamt of replicating the old home for myself. So much for the dream….It irritates me that we are so careless with the history of this country. This house could have been a museum about life in the 1870s. How much more of Thurston County history is in danger? How much is left?” Littooy said.

Above:  The barn on the property of the historic Miller-Brewer House was also destroyed in the fire. Photo Courtesy Hans Littooy.