Let’s talk about wildfires; wildfires have been a particularly hot (no pun intended) topic this summer due to the historic fires ravaging the West. Over 100 large blazes are currently burning in the United States, and California, a state that is notorious for fires, is experiencing three of its largest ever forest fires simultaneously. Firefighters have experienced great difficulty in containing and extinguishing many of these blazes, and communities have been decimated as a result. With all of this going on, now is a good time for anyone who recreates outdoors to gain a better understanding of forest fires, how to help prevent them, and what to do if they ever get caught in one.
First of all, not all forest fires are bad. Fires actually play an important part in the life of a forest. They clear away old, dead trees, and make way for life to begin anew. In fact, every year the US Forest Service burns acres of land throughout the country to aid this natural process in a controlled way.
Uncontrollable wildfires, however, can be devastating. Not all such fires are preventable, but a fair number, including some of this season’s worst in California, are caused by humans. Occasionally these fires are set by arsonists, but more often they occur due to error or careless behavior. Out-of-control fires threaten wildlife, ecosystems, homes, and human lives, and even if you are many miles from a fire, smoke-filled air and closures can make it difficult, if not impossible to enjoy being outside.
What can hikers and campers do about wildfires?
If you are someone who enjoys heading out into the woods once the temperature rises, it is crucial that you understand the environment you are in and how your actions can affect it. Here are some tips to help keep you and others safe from fire when you head out into the backcountry.
- Plan Ahead: Familiarize yourself ahead of time with local fire regulations and check the Forest Service’s fire danger report for your region. Make sure that all equipment you are planning on using (stoves, fuel, etc.) is compatible with regulations. If there is a high risk of fire then please refrain from building any fires and be extra vigilant about complying with all restrictions.
- Leave No Trace: Always adhere to Leave No Trace principles when you are in the backcountry and make sure you are aware of best practices when it comes to building fires in order to protect the environment.
- Use Established Fire Rings: Try to lessen the impact of building fires by using established fire rings that are located away from low hanging branches and brush.
- Keep Flammable Objects Away From Campfires: Tents, backpacks, clothing, fuel, firewood, etc. should all be kept at a safe distance from a campfire.
- Avoid Windy Conditions: Fires are far more likely to get out of control if there is wind feeding the flames and causing them to spread in the direction that it is blowing.
- Never Leave a Fire Unattended: If you choose to build a campfire, that fire is YOUR responsibility and you are stuck with it until it burns out completely and the coals are no longer hot. Remember that just because the flames have died out, it does not mean that it is safe to leave the site of a campfire.
- Drown Your Coals: Pour water over coals and ashes and mix it to make sure that everything is extinguished.
- Maybe, Don’t Build a Campfire: I know, I know, there is nothing quite like sitting around a campfire. However, the best way to ensure that a fire never gets out of control is to never build one in the first place. Besides, even if they don’t burn the forest down, campfires are really not great for the environment. It is true that knowing how to build a fire is an important backcountry skill, as there are certain situations where a fire can save your life, but unless you truly need it for warmth or to draw the attention of search and rescue personnel, try to just enjoy the sights and sounds of the natural world instead.
What do I do if I get caught in a wildfire?
Getting caught in a forest fire is an unenviable situation, to say the least. Inhalation of smoke, ash, and superheated air can kill a person quickly, and burns can do incredible, life-altering damage to the human body, even if you manage to survive. Hopefully you never find yourself in this scenario, but if you do, try to remember the following tips.
- Come Prepared: Always know ahead of time if you are going to be in an area that is prone to wildfires. Familiarize yourself with bailout points and escape routes and make sure you are aware of any road or trail closures. If the potential for a forest fire is significant enough, you may want to rethink your plans.
- Move Upwind of the Fire: Fires move in the direction of the wind, so if you try to flee a fire by heading downwind of it, you can expect the flames to be chasing you. Determine general wind direction by looking high in the sky and observing which direction the smoke is blowing in, and then travel in the opposite direction.
- Head Downhill: Heat rises, meaning that areas at higher elevations are more prone to catch fire and be surrounded by superheated air, so you want to avoid them if possible.
- Search For a Natural Break: Look for places where there is nothing to burn, such as a road, clearing, or body of water.
- Stay Dry: Unless you are taking refuge in lake or river, do your best to stay dry. Water is a tremendous conductor of heat, so small, shallow bodies of water, and even water on your clothes, can become boiling hot in the superheated air of a wildfire.
- Protect Your Lungs: Try covering your mouth with a bandana or cloth. While this won’t be enough to filter out smoke, it can prevent you from inhaling ash and debris.
- Go Underground: If you are unable to escape a fire in time, your best bet is to seek out some sort of trench to hide in while the fire passes. Try digging a hole in the side of the trench to crawl into, and if possible, cover the entrance with a blanket or tarp. If there is no time, lay down in the trench with your feet facing the flames and cover yourself in dirt (but make sure you can breathe) and wait for the fire to pass. This is definitely a worst-case scenario, but probably your best bet if you truly need a last resort.
Be smart, stay safe.
Remember that the more knowledge you have before heading out into the backcountry, the more easily you will be able to make good choices when the time comes. Know and implement best practices no matter what situation you are in. If you recognize that conditions are unsafe, postpone your plans until better weather comes along.
Smokey Bear & The Landmark Project
When talking about wildfire safety, it’s impossible not to mention Smokey Bear, the iconic mascot of wildfire safety for more than 75 years. The Landmark Project is immortalizing this legendary character with their Smokey Bear apparel line. 10% of the proceeds from every Smokey Bear product sold is donated to the US Forest Service for Wildfire Prevention Education.
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