Crater Lake National Park Centennial Oral Histories
Crater Lake Fires For 1955
By Norman Wild, Ranger Naturalist
With one or two exceptions, the 1955 summer visitor to Crater Lake National Park could not have found more suitable weather had he ordered it. Rarely was there rain, and then only for brief periods. The clear conditions offered the vacationist excellent opportunities to view the park and enjoy the naturalist-conducted boat and field trips. The lake, also, cooperated by sharing its colors with the hosts of photographers. A glance at the weather reports indicates that the total precipitation in June amounted to 1.57 inches. The greatest rainfall for any one day occurred on the 29th, when 0.65 inch was recorded. July was even drier. Only 0.58 inch fell, with the month’s heaviest rainfall coming on the 27th and contributing 0.21 inch to the total. August was completely free from precipitation. The warm weather indicated but one thing to the park’s fire guards: should any fires occur, control would be difficult, for the forests were very dry. The first fire of the year occurred on July 18, when a construction company, building a bridge near the Annie Spring entrance station, let a pile of old, burning timbers get out of control. The fire guards quickly quelled the blaze, which burned only one-quarter acre. This was the only park fire until September. On September 4, the two lookouts for the park, on The Watchman and Mt. Scott, were notified to watch for possible lightning strikes from a fast approaching electrical storm. I was on duty at the Information Building that afternoon. The log book from there indicates that the morning was clear — with the exception of a few large, billowy clouds. By noon, winds from the north and south had brought dark, ominous thunderheads into the region. The first lightning was observed from the rim. From these few flashes, three known fires were started, and fire crews were immediately sent out. The damage from these blazes covered 5.25 acres. Another lightning storm arrived on Labor Day, September 5. Unlike its predecessor, this provided some rain, all in the northeastern corner of the park. Lookouts on The Watchman and Mt. Scott immediately reported five smokes in the Union Peak area. As a result of this storm, the park was suddenly converted from normal operation to an emergency fire- fighting unit. Conditions were to remain that way until September 12, when the last of some twenty-six lightning and one man-caused fires were under control.
All available manpower was placed on stand-by. The situation was acute because most of the seasonal personnel had left prior to this outbreak. In all, thirty-nine National Park Service employees were available for use in some capacity for fire control. Only a few men could be spared for any one fire, since fourteen fires were now going. The light from the ranger office, the nerve center of the park for fire control, was to remain burning late into the night. Plans were being made, crews selected, and supplies ordered to meet the ever-increasing number of smoke reports. The fire house was a beehive of activity. Rangers, engineers, electricians, equipment operators, laborers, all were assembled to receive instructions, equipment, and sack lunches and to be dispatched to the fires.
Some were left to sharpen tools, fill back pumps, and have things in readiness for relief crews. On September 6, Ranger Naturalist Willis Downing and I helped fight a blaze which had been reported by the Mt. Scott lookout in the vicinity of Timber Crater. This area was now the scene of numerous smokes, for the small amount of rain which had fallen on September 5 had delayed the spreading of fire from the point of ignition, by lightning, to the forest duff. This fire, which eventually burned 7.2 acres, proved to be difficult to control, as it had started in some brush, far from the fire road. By early afternoon, when reinforcements arrived with a bulldozer to complete our hastily constructed fire line, the situation looked more promising. It was officially under control at 11:30 p.m. However, the last snags were not declared cold until the 14th. This initiated the first use of a bulldozer to fight a fire in Crater Lake National Park; it proved to be an invaluable aid to fire control. Equipment Operator John Fulton and I were used on succeeding days to look for new fires and to check on burned-over areas that were supposedly cold. His knowledge of the terrain was very useful, for we crossed much of the area by old, unused roads that were scarcely discernible. The fires were now putting heavy demands not only on the already short manpower, but also on all available equipment.
As a result of an emergency call on September 6, some portable field radios were flown from Olympic National Park to aid our communications. Additional hand tools and headlights were needed by the 8th. A rush order was sent for more equipment. Reinforcements of any kind were difficult to obtain because of the attention being given to numerous fires in northern California and southern Oregon. The abundance of smoke from fires, both in and outside the park, made the detection of new blazes difficult. Visibility from both lookouts was practically nil by September 7. By the 9th, Crater Lake could not be seen from the Rim Drive. Visitors were quite disappointed to find the blue waters hidden beneath a blanket of smoke. Many of the fires occurred far from available roads. Equipment had to be carried to the scene. Water, with but few exceptions, played only a small part in fire suppression. Considered a luxury, most of it had to be carried in with back pumps and was therefore used only sparingly. The tools most frequently employed were shovels, axes, Pulaskis (a combination axe and hoe), and McLeods (a combination rake and hoe). The most indispensable item of all, the weary man on the fire line, could not always expect immediate relief, and in some cases he worked around the clock. The last fire, the twenty-seventh in nine days, was reported in the early afternoon of September 12. Its location was on the north side of Union Peak. Fire Guard Fred Labar and his crew quickly extinguished this half-acre blaze.
That only thirty-one acres of the park were burned, that only thirty-nine men were available to suppress these twenty-seven fires, and that at no time was anyone allowed to relax and “take things easy,” should be proof enough that an outstanding job was done by one and all. There is a display in the Information Building which simulates a forest fire. It will always remind me of the dangers of fire as well as of these nine hectic days in which human effort and cooperation were realized to the fullest extent.