Wildland Fire in Ponderosa Pine: Western United States

Small flames consume pine needles and dead trees in pine forest.
Fire was a frequent visitor to ponderosa pine forests, clearing out underbrush and keeping forests less dense.

NPS

Ponderosa pine can exist as one component of a mixed forest, particularly in combination with Douglas-fir, or as a pure forest type. The typical surface cover in a ponderosa pine forest is a mixture of grass, forbs and shrubs. This forest community generally exists in areas with annual rainfall of 25 inches or less. Extensive pure stands of this forest type are found in the southwestern United States, central Washington and Oregon, southern Idaho and the Black Hills of South Dakota and Wyoming.

For approximately the first five years of their life cycle, ponderosa pine seedlings must compete strenuously with grass cover for survival and are very susceptible to fire. But, beginning in the fifth year or sixth year of its life, the tree begins to develop thick bark and deep roots and sheds its lower limbs. These factors increase its ability to withstand fire and decrease the possibility of a fire climbing to the crown. Furthermore, a thick bed of needles is deposited on the ground, suppressing grasses in the vicinity, thereby controlling the type of fuel available for burning and the type of fire that the tree may need to endure in the future.

Map showing areas in which ponderosa pines live in the western US, Canada, and Mexico.
Range of ponderosa pine in the Western United States and neighboring countries.

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Conifers, including ponderosa pine, are most flammable in the spring when their old needles are dry and new needles have not yet grown. In the fall, when the needles have dried out, conifers again are susceptible to fire.

Historically, fires in ponderosa pine communities burned naturally on a cycle of one every 5 to 25 years. This frequent fire burned the grasses, shrubs, and small trees, and maintained an open stand of larger ponderosa pine trees.

Prescribed burning is applied with slightly greater frequency and regularity, keeping in mind that a fire that is ignited too early will not have sufficient fuel to be effective. Similarly, a fire ignited too late in the cycle may potentially develop into a high-intensity fire.

Last updated: January 10, 2018