fire burning through the understory of a forest at night
Blanket Creek Fire, 2017

Fire is a Force of Nature

Fire is a natural part of the Crater Lake ecosystem. Fire is dangerous and powerful, and it can be inconvenient, but without it the Crater Lake ecosystem would never be the same. Many plants have developed adaptations so they can survive fire, and some even rely on fire for existence. Fire restores nutrients to the soil and positively impacts the composition of the park's plant communities. However as the west was settled in the 1800's, most naturally occurring fires were suppressed, drastically changing the health of the ecosystems. The National Park Service aims to restore fire's natural role in the park where it is safe and feasible.

Lightning may ignite dozens of fires in the Crater Lake area during a single summer, but most of them go out naturally after burning less than half an acre. Others will torch isolated or small groups of trees, become smoldering ground fires, and eventually go out on their own. On few occasions, wind driven fires can burn through large areas of the forest. Some of these can eventually burn thousands of acres. Without frequent small and occasional large fires to create a mosaic of plant communities in different growth stages, and biodiversity can decline. Downed branches and trees can create dangerous amounts of fuel, waiting for the next spark. A healthy progression of regular fires is essential to keep the ecosystem healthy and reduce fire loads in the forest.
pinecone attached to a branch of a lodgepole pine
Fire adapted cone of a lodgepole pine

Thriving in Fire

Many of the species here have adapted to the presence of fire. The ponderosa pine tree has developed a resistance to fire with a thick bark and branches high above the forest floor. Ponderosa's are not shade tolerant, and need plenty of sunlight to grow, so they wrely on fire to clean out the forest understory and clear room for their saplings to grow.

Without fire, trees like the white fir can start to dominate a forest. White firs are extremely shade tolerant, and not fire resistant. Firs will cast a lot of shade on the ground and prevent ponderosa pine saplings from growing. With the increased shade from the fir trees, grass cannot grow, and the small animals that once relied on the grass must find food elsewhere. If a fire were to hit a forest dominated by white firs, the firs would allow the fire to reach the crown of the remaining ponderosas and aid the fire in spreading rapidly through the forest, creating a fire that even the fire-resistant ponderosa pines cannot survive.

The Lodgepole pine, while susceptible to fire, relies on intense heat for reproduction. Female cones may take up to 2 years to mature and will either release seeds at maturity, or remain closed until subjected to high heat from a forest fire. Within in a short period of time after a lodgepole flashes into flame, the cones open up and release seeds over the blackened area, effectively dispersing seeds after fires. The newly enriched soil is prime for germination.

Fire is a jolt to living systems, the beginning of a new stage of life on the land. National parks protect and encourage nature at work.

Last updated: August 16, 2017

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Crater Lake National Park
PO Box 7

Crater Lake , OR 97604


(541) 594-3000

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