Damage growth in optical materials used in large aperture laser systems is an issue of great importance when determining component lifetime and therefore cost of operation. Understanding the mechanisms and photophysical processes associated with damage growth are important in order to devise mitigation techniques. In this work we examined plasma-modified material and cracks for their correlation to damage growth on fused silica and DKDP samples. We employ an in-situ damage testing optical microscope that allows the acquisition of light scattering and fluorescence images of the area of interest prior to, and following exposure to a high fluence, 355-nm, 3-ns laser pulse. In addition, high-resolution images of the damage event are recorded using the associated plasma emission. Experimental results indicate that both aforementioned features can initiate plasma formation at fluences as low as 2 J/cm2. The intensity of the recorded plasma emission remains low for fluences up to approximately 5 J/cm2 but rapidly increases thereafter. Based on the experimental results, we propose as possible mechanisms leading to damage growth the initiation of avalanche ionization by defects at the damage modified material and presence of field intensification due to cracks.© (2001) COPYRIGHT SPIE--The International Society for Optical Engineering. Downloading of the abstract is permitted for personal use only.