By Dylan J. Darling • The Bulletin

Amid a hectic wildfire season in Oregon, the largest fire in the recorded history of Crater Lake blackened the northwest corner of the state’s only national park.

Still burning after five weeks, but waning and 70 percent contained as of Saturday, the National Creek Complex Fire has burned 15,500 acres — almost 25 square miles. Of that, about 13,022 acres are in the park and the rest is national forestland. While historic, the big blaze did not leave a mark close to Crater Lake or any of the park’s signature sights.

“As far as scenic vistas, it is not something you are going to notice unless you look for it and you are aware that it is there,” said Greg Funderburk, fire management officer at Crater Lake National Park.

One big effect of the fire was the closure of the national park’s north entrance for 13 days, which forced visitors to reroute their to trip Crater Lake. The park has two entrances, with most visitors coming from Bend or Portland typically entering through the north.

Other than the north entrance, closed from Aug. 16 to Aug. 28, the park stayed open even at the height of the fire. Campgrounds and Crater Lake Lodge remained open.

The National Creek Complex Fire dwarfs the size of the next largest wildfire on record at Crater Lake National Park, Funderburk said. Records go back to 1931 and show the Bybee Fire, which burned 2,930 acres in 2006, was the next biggest blaze. Also noteworthy, the Middle Fork Fire in 2008 burned 2,232 acres in the park in one day. The fire burned an additional 15,000 acres outside of the park. The national park covers more than 183,000 acres.

With record-low snowpack at the park this winter, a mark also dating back to 1931, a rainless thunderstorm with lightning sparked what began as three separate fires around 4 p.m. Aug. 1.

Tracking the approaching storm on radar that afternoon, Funderburk drove to North Junction, where the North Entrance Road meets East and West Rim drives. The spot offers a view of the park’s northwestern corner, where the storm was crossing.

“I was actually standing on the rim and saw the lightning strike that started (the fire in the park),” he said.

The fire started in woods at an elevation of about 5,800 feet, which in a normal year would have been covered in ice and snow during wintertime. But this past winter they stayed snow-free, Funderburk said, priming them for fire this summer.

Called a complex because it is made up of more than one fire, the National Creek Complex Fire began as the Crescent and Crescent 2 fires in the park, which were about a quarter-mile from each other, and the National Fire, which started just outside the park boundary less than a mile away.

The Crescent and Crescent 2 fires grew together quickly. The flames Funderburk watched took off fast. In an hour the fire had burned 5 acres. In two hours it had burned 20 acres. Firefighters, including smokejumpers and engine crews, squelched seven other small fires that day but the Crescent, Crescent 2 and National fires defied their efforts to put them out.

Days later, in the hot and windy stretch from Aug. 8 to Aug. 14, the National Creek Complex Fire increased greatly in size.

Along with the National Park Service closing North Entrance Road, the Oregon Department of Transportation temporary closed parts of state Highways 138 and 230. A stretch of Highway 230 from just north of Union Creek and Highway 138 was closed from Aug. 14 until Aug. 24, according to Gary Leaming, an ODOT spokesman. The Park Service also closed a portion the Pacific Crest Trail passing close to the fire. All are back open and should remain so unless the fire flares up again.

The fire spread through old growth red fir and hemlock, as well as stands of lodgepole pine killed over the past 20 years by mountain pine beetle. Flames fed on dried lichen, which turned into embers and caused spot fires ahead of the main wildfire.

“When the fire made its big push, it was spotting a half-mile in front of itself,” Funderburk said.

To stop the wildfire’s spread, firefighters lit controlled burns from the North Park Entrance Road and the highways. The “burnouts” took nine days to complete along 12 miles of road and highway. The main goal was to keep the fire from spreading toward Diamond Lake, and firefighters were successful.

Now firefighting is winding down, with a change of weather at the park helping keep the fire’s activity minimal, said Chris Ziegler, spokesman for the interagency team managing the National Creek Complex.

“As of right now (we) hope to have containment October 1,” he said on Thursday.

Passing through the north entrance of the park visitors will see the charred results of the burnouts. Other than that, Funderburk said they should not notice much different with the park despite the fire’s lofty spot in the record book.

The mild winter that helped the fire grow so large has also boosted tourism at the park.

Despite the temporary closure of the entrance, visitation overall has good this year at Crater Lake, said Jim Chadderdon, executive director at Discover Klamath. The organization promotes tourist sites in Klamath County, including visits to Crater Lake.

“(I) don’t think the fires affected them too terribly,” he said.

— Reporter: 541-617-7812,

ddarling@bendbulletin.com

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