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Lewis & Clark's Columbia River - "200 Years Later"
"1902 Yacolt Burn, Washington"
Includes ... Yacolt Burn, 1902 ... Yacolt Burn State Forest ... Yacolt, Washington ...
Image, 2014, Larch Mountain, Washington, as seen from Washougal, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Larch Mountain, Washington, as seen from the road heading to the top. Larch Mountain was within the 1902 Yacolt Burn, and today is part of the Yacolt Burn State Forest. Image taken July 9, 2014.


Yacolt Burn, 1902 ...
In 1902, a fire known as the "Yacolt Burn" became the largest forest fire ever recorded in the State of Washington (until 2014 and 2015, see below). Between September 11 to 13, 1902, the "Yacolt Burn" fire burned more than 370 square miles (nearly 240,000 acres), destroying an unknown number of structures, and killed 38 people. Smoke darkened the skies. A steamboat on the Columbia River had to use a searchlight to navigate, Portland, Oregon was covered in one-half an inch of ash, while the street lights were on at noon in Seattle, Washington, 160 miles away. The town of Yacolt, Washington, was evacuated as the fire neared the town, coming close enough to blister paint on the town's 15 buildings. Fortunately the wind changed, causing the fire to veer north towards the Lewis River, where it burned itself out.

Origin ...
The origin of the 1902 fire is uncertain as the massive fire today known as the "Yacolt Burn" was a series of fires burning over much of southwestern Washington and northwestern Oregon. Fires were reported in the Lewis River drainage, the Wind River drainage, Lacamas River drainage, and the Kalama River drainage, while across the Columbia fires spread from the Eagle Creek drainage to the Bridal Veil drainage. The fires were fueled by a very dry summer and dead brush and slash and pushed by dry easterly winds.

"[The] haze was thicker than normal during the hot and dry summer of 1902. In August and September, more than 80 separate wildfires burned through the region, ultimately consuming some 700,000 acres of timberland.

The largest was the Yacolt Fire. USDA Forest Service records indicate that a strong southeast wind on September 11 drove one or more abandoned slash fires near Carson and Stevenson, WA, into the adjacent forests. The resulting crown fire roared westward, reaching the town of Yacolt, about 30 miles away. The town barely escaped incineration. From there, the firestorm shifted north, merging with another fire that had swept down the Lewis River.

Both fires combined covered 350 square miles in 3 days, leaving devastation in their wake. When finally estinguished by fall rains, the Yacolt Fire had burned 238,920 acres in Clark, Skamania, and Cowlitz Counties. ...

Hazy Origins.

... Horace Wetherell, a homesteader living near Carson in Skamania County, WA, was the ranger assigned to the entire southern half of the reserve. Wetherell was the sole agency witness to events surrounding the origin of the Yacolt Fire. His account, told decades later (Shepeard 1938), is the closest to an official government record of the fire that exists.

According to Wetherell, the fire was started by Monroe Vallett, who was burning slash east of Stevenson. The slash fire burned out of control, spreading through the timber to the top of nearby Stevenson Ridge, where the east winds blowing down the Columbia River Gorge drove the blaze west. Neither Vallett nor Wetherell took action to stop the fire. ... Vallett was eventually arrested and tried in Walla Walla, WA, but never convincted. ...

Other rumors, stories, and theories abound about the origin of the Yacolt Fire. A Weyerhaeuser Corporation history (Jones 1974) asserts that the fire began either in the Washougal River Valley or somewhere on the Lewis River. The Weyerhaeuser account suggests that the fire originated from loggers burning slash, farmers clearing stumps, or fishermen leaving campfires unattended.

Another source indicates a slash fire origin near Yacolt, and yet another attributes the Yacolt Fire to embers drifting across the Columbia River from a fire at Bridal Veil, OR (Stearns 1960). By one account, a small fire smoldered unnoticed for more than a month in the Silver Star Mountain area until fanned by strong east winds into the Yacolt Fire. In all probability, there were multiple points of ignition -- several fires moving at once and in slightly different directions."


Source:    Rick McClure, Heritage Program Manager for the USDA Forest Service, Gifford Pinchot and Mount Hood National Forests, 2005, "Washington's "Awful Conflagration" -- The Yacolt Fire of 1902", Fire Management Today, Volume 65, No.1, Winter 2005.


"Imagine flames 300 feet tall, wind whipping at 40 miles per hour, and sparks leaping over 1/2 mile, spreading fire 20 miles in 12 hours. At the end of three days 238,000 acres of forested land between Stevenson and Vancouver lay smoldering in ash and smoke. It became known as the Yacolt Burn of 1902, named after the largest community at its western edge, the largest wildfire recorded in Washington history. Thirty-eight people died and 148 families lost their homes. A hundred years later, evidence of the burn and efforts to protect and reforest it are still visible.

Between 1902 and 1952, over 25 large, intense, conflagrations occurred within the boundaries of the first burn. Known as "reburns," they caused further devastation and made reforestation difficult. Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) members were the major work force from 1933-1941. In the 1950s, Washington State adopted an inmate work program, with crews at Larch Corrections Center, located in the original burn. Both groups built telephone lines and lookouts, planted over 16 million tree seedlings, and felled snags within the old burn creating fire breaks."


Source:    U.S. Forest Service, 2003, "Driving Through Washington's Largest Wildfire; A self-guided tour of the Yacolt Burn".


Views ...
Places within (or associated with) the 1902 Yacolt Burn:


Image, 2014, Larch Mountain, Washington, as seen from Washougal, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Larch Mountain, Washington, as seen from the road heading to the top. Larch Mountain was within the 1902 Yacolt Burn, and today is part of the Yacolt Burn State Forest. Image taken July 9, 2014.
Image, 2015, Moulton Falls Park, East Fork Lewis River, click to enlarge
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Moulton Falls Park, East Fork Lewis River. Image taken April 17, 2015.
Image, 2016, Washougal River, click to enlarge
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Recreation sign at Dougan Falls, Washougal River, Washington. Image taken August 3, 2016.
Image, 2016, Washougal River, click to enlarge
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Washougal River at Dougan Falls, looking downstream. View from Washougal River Road bridge at Dougan Falls. Image taken August 3, 2016.
Image, 2011, Yacolt, Washington, click to enlarge
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City Hall, Yacolt, Washington. Image taken April 19, 2011.

This old brick building was occupied by City Hall from 1908 until 2009, when City Hall moved a few blocks over into a newer building. After the Yacolt Burn of 1902, the building was made of brick to last forever. The building also doubled as the town jail. Today the town of Yacolt hopes to turn the building into a museum.
Image, 2014, Yale Lake, Washington, click to enlarge
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Yale Lake, Yale Park Recreation Area, Washington. Image taken September 4, 2014.

Yale Park, located along Yale Lake (Lewis River) is located within the 1902 Yacolt Burn area.
Image, 2014, Yale Lake, Washington, click to enlarge
Click image to enlarge
Yale Lake and Mount St. Helens, as seen from Yale Park Recreation Area, Washington. View looking north. Mount St. Helens is at skyline. Image taken September 4, 2014.

Yale Park, located along Yale Lake (Lewis River) is located within the 1902 Yacolt Burn area.


Yacolt Burn, 1902, etc.

  • September 11 to 13, 1902 ...
  • 1934 Report, W.G. Morris, "Forest Fires in Western Oregon and Western Washington" ...
  • 1936 Report, J.D. Guthrie, "Great Forest Fires of America" ...
  • Largest Washington State Forest Fires ...
  • Yacolt Burn State Forest ...
  • Yacolt, Washington ...


September 11 to 13, 1902 ...
Source:    "Morning Oregonian", September 13, 1902, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.



Laid Low By Fire; Bridal Veil Sawmill Is Destroyed; Loss Is About $60,000; Prosperous Town of Palmer Is Wiped Out; State Covered with Blazes.

"BRIDAL VEIL, Or., Sept. 12. -- At 3 o'clock this morning fire destroyed the sawmill of the Bridal Veil Lumbering Company and the whole town of Palmer, situated two miles south of Bridal Veil. The fire originalted along the right of way of the O.R. & N. on Monday last, and soon threatened the property of the lumbering company. ... The fire got beyond control, as a terrific east wind was blowing, but by heroic work in cutting and firing back into the brush and timber they were able to save the planing mills, dwallings and lumber at Bridal Veil Station. In spit of all efforts, the fire worked up the mountain side, and at midnight Thursday the sawmill caught. Bot the mill and the town of Palmer had a perfect system of water works, but on account of the high wind the water seemed to have no effect on the flames. Within one hour after the fire struck the sawmill the once prosperous town was completely wiped out."



Fires Along the Columbia.

"Men who arrived in Portland yesterday from up the Columbia say that fire was raging in the hills on both side of the Columbia from Bridal Veil to Hood River. In most places the timber was of poor quality and no great loss will result, but in one or two places valuable timber was burned."



Source:    "Sunday Oregonian", September 14, 1902, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.



Driven to Water by Fire. Families Spend Greater Part of Night in Stream. Extent of Damage Thought to Be Greater Than Reported, Cannot Be Learned for Days.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., Sept. 13. -- Ferdinand and William Powell, of Hockinson, whose houses were burned, came in today, and reported that 20 families have been rendered homelss by a terrible fire which burned over a large territory in that vicinity Thursday and Friday. The fire was driven by a strong wind which appeared to move with a circular motion similar to Eastern cyclones, and consumed everything in its path. Buildings, crops of all kinds and much livestock have been destroyed.

The fire was so fierce in one neighborhood that a number of families, unable to make their escape by way of the roads, plunged into LaCamas Creek and lay in the water a greater portion of Thursday night, in order to save their lives. ..."



Still Raging at Vancouver. Loss of Valuable Timber Threatens Business Interests of City.

"VANCOUVER, Wash., Sept. 13. -- (Special.)-- Forest fires are still raging in several parts of the county, and reports brought to town today say that a fire is in tall timber in the north end of the county, near Yacolt timber. This is one of the best timber belts in the Northwest, and if the fires sweep the entire section the losses will reach more than $1,000,000.

The Portland, Vancouver & Yakima Railway Company is just completing a line to Yacolt for the purpose of making an outlet for the millions of feet of valuable sawlogs that stand on that township. ...

Fred Burlingame, who lives on the edge of Yacolt Prairie, was brought to town today, badly burned, and taken to St. Joseph's Hospital for treatment. When seen by an Oregonian man, Mr. Burlingame said that everything in that section was burned. ...

Fires in other parts of the county have somewhat abated. Ferdinand Powell, of Hockinson, where the fire raged the fiercest yesterday, was in town today and reported that 20 families were burned out in that section ..."



Street-cars Used Headlights. Dense Smoke in Seattle Makes All Navigation Dangerous.

"SEATTLE, Sept. 13. -- Owing to the forest fires now raging throughout the state a thick canopy of smoke overhung this city today. It was so dense that the eyes of citizens were inflamed and their lungs congested. Gas and electric lights were kept burning all day, and the street-cars all carried headlights. An incessant din was kept up by their warning gongs and by thw shistles of craft on the bay.

On the water the smoke hung so low that it was impossible to mark the outlines of a vessel more than 100 feet away. All the Sound steamers ran at a greatly reduced rate of speed, and in consequence fell far behind schedule time. ..."



Six Perish at Kalama.

"KALAMA, Wash., Sept. 13. -- (Special.)-- The forest fires on the Lewis River have destroyed five logging camps and the homes of more than a score of settlers. D.L. Wallace, wife and two children, Hanley's 12-year-old boy and Mrs. Graves are known to have perished, and many campers are missing. The whole country above Etna has been wiped out."



Source:    "Morning Oregonian", September 15, 1902, courtesy Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018.



Dead List Grows. Lives and Property Lost in the Fire. Up Lewis River Valley. Ravages in Clark and Cowlitz Counties. Over One Hundred Missing.

"Driven from their homes in the darkness of the night by a raging forest fire, whcich swept everything before it from Ariel, Cowlitz County, to the foot of Mount St. Helens, a distance of 25 miles, over 200 people have been left homeless, and many have not even clothes enough to cover them. ...

The first news of the devastation was brought to this city by Milo M. Dimmick, who experienced many difficulties in making the trip out to send aid to the sufferers. Saturday he reached Woodland, Wash., ... From his description, the suffering there is great, and the devastation is the most appalling of any that has been reported. Fort a stretch of 25 miles, he says, there are but two houses standing. The fine timber from which the people expected to realize fortunes has all been ruined. The fire cam upon them in the night, and entirely unexpectedly. ... "I had scarcely time to get to the river myself," said he ...

While immersed in the river Mr. Dimmick saw one of the grandest but most appalling sights of his life. "Great balls of fire would roll up like cotton balls," said he, "and then burst with a mightly roar. I have never heard a noise to compare with it. A hundred engines thundering through a tunnel at once would not make half the noise."

As soon as the fire had passed over him he rushed to a neighbor's house and found that the family had been driven from home, but had escaped death.

When morning came he set out to bring in relief. The bridges were all burned, the roads were obstructed by trees that had fallen across them, so that his progress was very slow, and he did not reach Woodland until Saturday morning. ..."



Fire Havoc on Lewis River. Five Persons Known to Have Perished -- Heavy Property Loss.

"KALAMA, Wash., Sept. 14. -- News reached here late last night that the forest fires on Lewis River have wrought sad havoc -- D.L. Wallace, wife and two children burned to death. They were camping in the woods when caught by the fires. Their wagon was found burned up and the charred bodies were lying near. ...

Five logging camps are burned out complete. ...

The worst of the fire was on Lewis River, about 12 miles above Woodland. The country is well settled and there are doubtless other casualties not yet reported. The fire has spread from Lewis River north to the Kalama River, and 50 sections of the finest timber on the Coast are destroyed. It is impossible to give any estimate of the amount of damage to property.

Oak Point, about 20 miles below here, on the Columbia River, is totally destroyed. There are no reports of lives lost, but loss of property is estimated at about $300,000.

A great fire is also raging on the Coweman, in the northern part of the county. Everything combustible is consumed in its path. ...

Cowlitz County thought it was going to escape until today, when disastrous reports came thick and fast, and the last are worse and worse. ...

A courier has just arrived from Lewis River, who states that there are only two houses left standing on Lewis River from Strait's place to the head of the river, a distance of 30 miles, and not less than 15 persons have perished."



Many Families Burned Out. Devastation Wrought in Clark County, Washington.

"BATTLE GROUND, Wash., Sept. 14.-- (Sepcial.)-- Since the report of yesterday concerning forest fires in the vicinity of Mount Bell, the wind has calmed down and reports of loss and suffering are coming in slowly. ...

Report comes from Dole, east of Mount Bell, in Cedar Creek Valley, that nearly every settler in there is burned out, and several lives lost. People from this neighborhood are in the field and are doing as much as possible to relieve the distress of the homeless families. The fire extended north as far as Amboy.

In the Eureka neightborhood, southeast from here, many settlers were burned out. Bridges, plank roads, schoolhouses, everthing went. If the wind does not rise again probably the fire will not spread any farther. -- Peter Ansdorff."



Source:    "Adams County News", September 17, 1902, courtesy Washington State Library and the U.S. Library of Congress "Chronicling America".



Fires Near Yacolt.

"Vancouver, Wash., Sept. 15. -- Fred Burlingame has arrived here from Yacolt 30 miles north, and states that a terrific fire has been raging in that vicinity for the past two days. The fire, he says, is now burning in the big timber district north and east of Yacolt. While assisting to fight the flames Burlingame became surrounded by fire and had to flee for his life. He was terribly burned about the head and face, and upon his arrival here was taken to a hospital. Twenty families have been rendered homeless by the terrible fire, which burned over a large territory in that vicinity on Thursday and Friday. The fire was driven by a strong wind, which appeared to move with a circular motion, and consumed everything in its path. Buildings and crops of all kinds and much livestock were destroyed. The fire was so fierce in one neighborhood that a number of families, unable to make their escape, plunged into La Camas creek and lay in the water a greater portion of Thursday night in order to save their lives.

The fire has now burned itself out in that locality and passed on the north and east. Conditions are believed to be much worse than yet reported in the burned districts remote from telephone and telegraph communication, and actual results will probably not be known for several days. Millions of feet of valuable timber have been destroyed, in addition to an immense amount of farm property.

It is reported that the hotel buildings at St. Martin Springs have been burned."



1934 Report, W.G. Morris, "Forest Fires in Western Oregon and Western Washington" ...
"September 11 was a black day in the spread of forest fires in the region surrounding Portland for a distance of 50 miles. The smoke was so dense in Portland that it made the eyes smart, and ashes were thick on the streets. The Oregonian recorded destructive fires on this date at Tillamook, Newport, along the Salmonberry and Miami rivers, at Skye, Washougal, Long Beach, Mehama, Bell Mountain, east of Vancouver, along the North Santiam River, Rocky Butte near Portland, Gresham, Molalla, Multnomah, south of Portland, Springwater, Palmer, lower Puget Sound, and in the fateful Lewis River Valley. In nearly every case, strong east winds swept the fires beyond control during the afternoon or evening. ...

The fire which destroyed the mill town and the lives of two boys on the night of September 11 at Palmer, 26 miles east of Portland, was started by a railroad locomotive on September 8, near Bridal Veil, two miles away. ...

September 12 was the smokiest day of the season at many towns such as Oregon City, Salem, Centralia, Shelton, Elma, and Olympia. Centralia reported the darkness of midnight lasting until 10 a.m. The sun was hardly visible at Salem. ...

Death rode through the Lewis River Valley in the flames of the great Yacolt fire on the night of September 11. A reporter from the Oregonian who visited the scene of the tragedy stated: "The cause of the various fires which have brought such destruction are really unknown, though many theories are held by the inhabitants of the affected country. There seems to be no doubt that more than one fire sent the sparks flying through the air to waiting brush piles and dead timber, where the breeze soon fanned the small blaze into another hurricane of flame ... Small fires were seen simultaneously on outlying hills so distant from one another that the theory that all the fires sprung from one blaze seems impossible."

One fire came down the Lewis River, while another came from the hills between Kalama and Lewis rivers. The paths of these two fires intersected between Ariel and Yale. The fire which came down the Lewis River Valley was believed by some people to have been started by two strangers who touched a match to the slashings on their timber claim. Another theory is that a fire was started by careless campers on the Muddy, an affluent of the north fork of the Lewis River 30 miles east of Yale. A third fire consumed timber on the Coweman River north of the Lewis River; it is not known whether this was a branch of the Lewis-Kalama River fires or whether it started spearately. ...

Three families who had camped across the river from Yale were driven from their stopping place by a fire coming down the Siouxon Creek. They tried to escape the flames by lying along the bank of the Lewis River, but all were found suffocated by the smoke. In a house half a mile away, a woman and two children were burned. Forty people who reached Speleyah Prairie were saved. Sixty people at Trout Lake near Saint Helens were reported to have escaped the fire by taking to rafts. ..."


Source:    William G. Morris, 1934, "Forest Fires in Western Oregon and Western Washington, IN: "Oregon Historical Quarterly", Vol.35, No.4, December 1934, courtesy "JSTOR" Digital Library, 2018.



1936 Report, J.D. Guthrie, "Great Forest Fires of America" ...
Great Forest Fires of America.

"And now let's look back to 1902 again at what is variouly called the Lewis River fire, the Columbia, Cispus, Yacolt, or Cowlitz fires. This fire swept from the Kalama River in Cowlitz County south through Clarke and Skamania and east to the Wind River Valley, all in Washington. South of the Columbia River, in Oregon, fires swept from the river southward through Multnomah and Clackamas Counties to the Molalla River.

Here again the atmospheric stage had been set for a conflagration. The fire occurred in September -- and it may be remarked that the most destructive fires in the Pacific northwest region have been in September. The summer had been deficient in rainfall. High temperatures, dry air, and light winds for almost 4 months previously. The earth was parched, crops had failed, vegetation had dried up, down timber and snags were as tinder. High winds from the east ushered in September.

Fires had been burning near Silver Star Mountain in Cowlitz County for over a month previously; no one paid any attention. Careless settlers were burning slash in many places. Another fire had been burning on Muddy Creek, a tributary of Lewis River.

On September 8 and 9 these fires crept out through a number of gaps in the first range from Washougal to North Fork Lewis, and from then until September 15 the people of Clarke and Cowlitz Counties did little else but fight fire day and night. September 12 was "a dark day" in western Washington. More than 600,000 acres were burned, the property loss was placed at $12,000,000, and 18 people were killed.

Along the North Fork of Lewis River the fire on September 11 probably reached its greatest severity. Here a party of nine people was overtaken by the flames. They had been camping at Spirit Lake, and hurrying ahead of the coming fire, they found the narrow road blocked with fallen timber. The fiery hurricane closed in around them. ... In all, 16 lives were lost on the North Fork of Lewis River.

Millions of feet of some of the finest timber in the northwest were destroyed, and sawmills, logs, railroad ties, settlers' homes, bridges, mining buildings, and countless numbers of wildlife were wiped out. ...

It was from this fire, however, that organized forest-fire protection agencies in the Pacific northwest date their origins. It aroused timber owners, logging operators, foresters, and others to such an extent that legislative steps toward protection of the forests followed soon after. And then various organizations to prevent and combat forest fires came into being."


Source:    John D. Guthrie, Inspector, United State Forest Service, 1936, "Great Forest Fires of America", U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service.



Largest Washington State Forest Fires ...
In 2014 the Carlton Complex (Okanogan County) burned over 250,000 acres (more than 400 square miles) and destroying over 300 homes. This fire resulted in one death.

In 2015 the Okanogan Complex (Okanogan County) burned more than 306,000 acres, destroyed 195 homes, and caused 3 deaths.

As of the 2017 fire season, the Okanogan Complex fire was the largest in state history. The Yacolt Burn at 238,900 acres, comes in third.



Yacolt Burn State Forest ...
The 90,000-acre Yacolt Burn State Forest is located on the west side of the Cascade Mountain range, east of Vancouver, south of the Lewis River, and ends north of the Columbia River community of Washougal. It includes areas such as Silver Star Mountain and Washington State's Larch Mountain.


Yacolt, Washington ...
According to "Place Names of Washington" (Hitchman, 1985, Washington State Historical Society):

"YACOLT (T28N, R8W, Section 19)
Town 20 miles northeast of Vancouver, central Clark County. At one time, 2 post offices were in competition at this place. Yacolt and Garner. Eventually, they were combined under the present name. The Indian word means "place abounding in evil spirits" or "haunted place." It derives from an incident, many years ago, in which 5 Indian children were lost while picking wild berries."

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From the Journals of Lewis and Clark ...

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*River Miles [RM] are approximate, in statute miles, and were determined from USGS topo maps, obtained from NOAA nautical charts, or obtained from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers website, 2003

Sources:
  • Guthrie, J.D., Inspector, United State Forest Service, 1936, "Great Forest Fires of America", U.S. Department of Agriculture, U.S. Forest Service;
  • Historic Oregon Newspapers Archives, University of Oregon Libraries, 2018;
  • "historylink.org" website, 2011, written by David Wilma, 2003;
  • Hitchman, R., 1985, Place Names of Washington, Washington State Historical Society;
  • Morris, W.G., 1934, "Forest Fires in Western Oregon and Western Washington, IN: "Oregon Historical Quarterly", Vol.35, No.4, December 1934, courtesy "JSTOR" Digital Library, 2018;
  • U.S. Forest Service, 2003, "Driving Through Washington's Largest Wildfire; A self-guided tour of the Yacolt Burn";
  • Washington State Department of Natural Resources, Yacolt Burn State Forest Map (notes on reverse), 1991;


All Lewis and Clark quotations from Gary Moulton editions of the Lewis and Clark Journals, University of Nebraska Press, all attempts have been made to type the quotations exactly as in the Moulton editions, however typing errors introduced by this web author cannot be ruled out; location interpretation from variety of sources, including this website author.
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December 2018