Fire Management

Smoke plume rises above a forested area along a lake
Rainbow Bridge Fire in Stehekin along Lake Chelan

NPS Photo / Alison Bender

Wildland fire management in the National Park Service (NPS) is dedicated to safety, science, and resource stewardship. A safe and successful fire management program has many elements that must all work together.

The NPS manages wildland fire to protect the public, communities and infrastructure, and to restore and maintain ecological health. The program manages fire based on the best scientific information and monitors programs to ensure that objectives are being met. NPS fire program managers work in coordination with other natural and resource disciplines and interagency partners to ensure that park resources and values are preserved, protected, and enhanced through the appropriate response to wildfire and the application of fuels treatments.

Fire Management in the North Cascades is as complex and varied as the topography and forest ecosystems because it involves responding to a variety of fuel types and conditions, coordinating with communities and other agencies, and relying on scientific data to monitor fire effects and assess long-term trends in the ecosystem.

Use of wildland fire for benefit to resources is an important component of fire management at North Cascades National Park Service Complex (the Complex). Management constraints are decreasing and opportunities for use of wildland fire are increasing as per National Park Service and National Fire Plan directives. The National Fire Plan and implementation guide provide guidelines and framework in which to utilize wildland fire along with the Wildland Fire Decision Support System.

It is recognized that natural interactions between fire and the environment influence the vegetation structure and biodiversity within the Complex. The role of fire should be maintained through the use of wildland fire in order to prevent the eventual impacts from fire exclusion to the ecosystems of the Complex. Furthermore, in areas showing adverse effects from fire suppression, restoration of forest structure and reduction of fuel loads will allow natural processes to resume and reduce the risk of unwanted, high-intensity wildland fires that might cause undesirable changes in forest type and threaten human lives or property.

Management Objectives:

  • Manage ecosystems to preserve the natural range of variability in processes and structure
  • Minimize adverse impacts to threatened, endangered, and sensitive species and their habitat
  • Set strategies for fire management activities based on site-specific information or local research findings on departure from natural fire return intervals and fire regime characteristics

Fire and Resource Management

Fire is an essential part of the ecosystem and is an important natural disturbance that is vital for healthy ecosystems. Rather than put out every fire, the park plans carefully to use it as a tool. The goal: to take advantage of fire's benefits while minimizing risks to people, property, and the health of the forest.

Minimum Impact Tactics (MIT) are guidelines to significantly reduce environmental impacts. The use of natural barriers rather than constructing fire line are examples of MIT to help confine and contain fires. This helps to minimize the long-term effects of fires on the park’s landscape.

The cycle of fire and regeneration is a historically important factor to the park’s ecosystem. Minimum Impact Tactics help minimize the long-term effects of fire fighting efforts on the ecosystem.

Fire suppression may be utilized when there are threats to resources or boundaries. Resources that need protection could include: structures, data collection equipment, campgrounds or trail infrastructure, populated areas, highways, or endangered species habitat. Suppression could be utilized during wildfires or prescribed fires.

Suppression activities include: line construction, burning, pump and hoselay deployment, structure wrap, fuel treatment, or aerial application of water.

Most often the tools utilized will include: hand tools, chainsaws, engines, portable pumps and helicopters. In rare cases, fire retardant, foam, or dozers could be used if outside wilderness in wildland urban interface areas or fires posing a threat to those areas.


Prescribed Fire

Prescribed fire is a management ignited fire during specified fuel and weather conditions, with a signed burn plan to pre-determined boundaries. It is used for hazard fuel reduction and/or ecosystem restoration. Prescribed burns have specific goals and objectives. Fire managers within the Complex have been prescribed fire since 1991 and will continue to do so where appropriate.

The North Cascades Fire Management Program conducts prescribed fires in the Stehekin District of the Complex in the fall and spring and in Lake Roosevelt National Recreation Area in the spring.


Tree thinning, combined with prescribed fire implementation, continues to help the forested area around the community be more resilient to wildfire. These underburns are included in the Stehekin Valley Forest Fuel Reduction Plan which the fire staff has been implementing in stages since September 1995.

Underburns that occur during late summer and fall mimic natural events and provide the best ecological benefits. Underburns also reduce forest fuels which in turn reduce wildfire severity, and make it easier for firefighters to limit fire spread.

Wildland fire management activities conducted by the National Park Service (NPS) are guided by NPS management policies and the 2009 Federal Wildland Fire Policy.

Lake Roosevelt

A multi-year native vegetation restoration approach and Wildland Urban Interface fuels reduction emphasis is used at Lake Roosevelt. Mechanical treatment and prescribed fire is used to achieve native plant restoration and forest health objectives, provide for public safety, and enhance defensible space adjacent to park infrastructure and private property.


Helicopter Use

Helicopters are sometimes the fastest and most effective way to get vital cargo into remote areas of the park for emergency fire management operations.

Helicopters are vital to any response for personnel insertion and tactical support. In addition to aiding suppression activities, helicopters are often also used for detection, observation, monitoring, infra-red imaging, and mapping.

North Cascades National Park Service Complex partners with Mount Rainier National Park to staff an exclusive use helicopter with the primary missions of search and rescue and wildfire management on the national parks. The helicopter is staffed for the core-peak of the visitor and fire season for 120 days every year.

group of people with trees and mountain in background
2019 Fire crew and staff

NPS Photo / Katy Hooper


Interactive Wildfire History Timeline

Over the years, National Park Service fire managers have developed and used effective tactics, technology, and policy to enhance public and firefighter safety, and preserve natural and cultural landscapes. Our history of managing fire spans nearly one and a half centuries.

Last updated: August 26, 2023

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Sedro-Woolley, WA 98284


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