Updated: Aug 23, 2021
As you’ve most likely noticed, this has already been a record summer for wildfires. Record heat waves have created tinder-dry forests throughout the US and Canada. Smoke from these fires has blanketed parts of North America, resulting in poor air and limited visibility.
Wildfires can throw a wrench in your weekend plans by affecting air quality, public land access, and your safety. However, by planning ahead properly and using the tools we provide in this article, you can still have a full outdoor adventure!
What Is A Wildfire?
A wildfire is an unintentional fire that burns in forests, grasslands, or any other natural environment. Mid summer to mid fall is known as “wildfire season” throughout most of the western US. This region of the US has a yearly fire season because it has large forested areas that fuel fires when conditions are extremely dry.
Satellite view of a wildfire in Paradise, California.
What Causes A Wildfire?
Unfortunately, nearly 85% of wildfires in the United States are caused by humans. This comes out to a grand total of 2.4 million acres burned per year, according to AccuWeather. To gain perspective on what that means, human-caused wildfires burn an area the size of Rhode Island and Delaware combined, every year on average. Smokey Bear says that by following proper fire safety rules, many of these fires are preventable.
Most Common Ways That People Start Wildfires
- Debris Burns
- Vehicles taken off-road
- Unattended Children
How Can We Prevent Forest Fires?
Forest fire prevention knowledge is extremely valuable for the outdoor adventurer. Since humans are the largest creators of wildfires, we can also be the largest preventers of wildfires. Wildfire prevention starts with you!
- Obey all posted campfire, fireworks, and smoking bans.
- Pay attention to the weather and the posted wildfire danger rating before having a fire outside. Dry or windy weather could increase the chances of a wildfire occuring.
- Even if you are allowed to build a campfire, should you? If you don’t have the means to put out the fire, don’t build it.
- If you smoke, don’t litter the natural environment or add to fire danger. According to Leave No Trace, cigarette butts can spark massive wildfires and ruin the pristine environment that once existed there.
- If vehicles are banned from going off-road, make alternate plans for transportation.
- Parking off-road in grassy or brushy areas is dangerous and could spark a wildfire in dry conditions. According to the Bureau of Land Management, your car’s exhaust can reach temperatures of over 1000 degrees fahrenheit. When an object this hot comes into contact with something flammable like dry grass, it can spontaneously catch on fire.
- Keep lighters and matches out of the hands of children.
- If you come upon a smoldering campfire, do the right thing and put it out. “If it’s too hot to touch, it’s too hot to leave.”-Smokey Bear
- Visit here for some more of Smokey Bear’s Prevention How-To’s!
Wildfires are an unfortunate situation for all – people’s homes, natural resources, and whole regions can be affected and, sadly, destroyed. The person who is deemed responsible for starting the blaze can also be held liable, both for criminal charges and monetary penalties. The moral of the story: follow the rules, use common sense, and be fire safe!
Who’s Managing These Wildfires?
Wildland firefighting crews are often brought into wildfire-ravaged areas. The firefighters in these crews can come from all over the country. There are many different types of wildland firefighters, from hand crews to smoke jumpers. Learn more about wildland firefighters from the US Forest Service.
You can help these firefighters by donating to the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. They raise money for the families of wildland firefighters who are injured or killed while saving our communities and our forests. You can also donate pallets of water or sports beverages to the Red Cross in your area, or directly to your local fire station. Wildland fire crews need large amounts of drinking water and electrolytes for the long, hot days in the field.
How Do Wildfires Affect Air Quality?
As you’ve probably heard, air quality has been a popular topic lately. When a wildfire burns, it often creates thick and harmful smoke, which affects the air you breathe. Air quality is the amount of foreign particles in the air measured by the EPA on the Air Quality Index. The AQI runs on a scale of 0-500. 0 is clean air, free of particulates, and 500 would be hazardous, foreign particulate-filled air. Since wildfires produce smoke, the ash particles contaminate the air and can increase an area’s AQI.
People with preexisting heart or lung conditions, along with young children, the elderly, and those who have diabetes or are pregnant, are all at a higher risk to be affected by wildfire smoke. According to the EPA, even if you are healthy, smoke can affect your ability to breathe. As a result, strenuous outdoor activity should be avoided when air quality is poor. This is especially important in the outdoors, where you may not have immediate access to medical care. Check your local AQI here, at AirNow.gov.
The table below shows all of the Air Quality Index categories and descriptions for every level of air quality. This has been provided by the US Environmental Protection Agency, who has also given us some great tips and tricks on how to plan for bad air quality.
Wildfires & Camping
If there are wildfires or thick smoke where you plan to go, find somewhere else to hike! It’s not worth getting close to wildfires. You can put yourself, fire crews, and your potential rescuers, at risk. Not to mention, hiking through smoke and falling ash isn’t much fun either.
When you are planning your hike, you can:
- Check here for updated wildfire maps.
- Monitor your local air quality here.
- Ask a local park ranger or tour guide if any trails are affected by wildfires.
Car Camping During Wildfire Season
Although designated campsites often have metal fire pits or pre-built fire rings, we still have to follow Smokey Bear’s basic campfire rules when using them. This includes respecting fire bans when they are in place. Something to note is that cars have been known to spark fires in extremely dry conditions, so make sure to avoid driving and parking on grass and brush when conditions are dry.
Some regions can have off-road vehicle bans in dry conditions – if you are overlanding in an off-road vehicle, plan on sticking to established roads during times of high fire danger.
States or counties are responsible for creating and enforcing fire restrictions. Below is a list of states with links to their respective fire ban maps. This list is not exhaustive, and fire bans do occur (although not commonly) in other states. It is always a good idea to reach out to your local ranger station for more information, regardless of what state you are located in.
Having a campfire may seem like the quintessential camping experience, but that’s simply not the case. The friends, the scenery, and a little bit of adventure are what makes up the perfect camping experience. Leave No Trace gives us some great campfire alternatives here!
Backpacking During Fire Season
As long as you obey posted fire and camping closures and practice wildfire prevention methods, it is okay to go on a backpacking adventure during fire season. More preparation will be needed, however. Check below for some fire season planning tips.
How to Backpack During Fire Season
- Map out your backpacking route, and make sure there are no wildfires nearby. Call your local ranger station, or even tweet at your National Park’s twitter page for guidance! You can give them an emergency contact in case fires move your way.
- Look for any campfire restrictions where you plan to camp.
- As Leave No Trace points out in their principle ‘Minimize Campfire Impacts’ – even if you are allowed to have a campfire, should you? Think about the circumstances. Do you have water to put the fire out with? Is it dry? Is it windy?
- Look at trail maps and have an exit strategy for if you encounter a wildfire. Think about different scenarios. What if a fire approaches from the east? The west? Are there impassable mountains on one side of me? You get the idea. Plan for the worst, hope for the best.
- Check the weather forecast with the National Weather Service. Pay attention to the projected heat and how that could affect wildfire conditions. Storms with thunder and lightning could potentially cause fires as well.
- Let someone at home know your exact route and trip itinerary in case of emergency.
- We recommend carrying a GPS device such as the Garmin InReach Mini.
Preparing For The Worst
Even if you are backpacking away from known wildfires, there is the possibility that a wildfire could start near you while you’re out in the wilderness. While the chances of this happening are very low, it’s always a good idea to plan for the worst.
If you come upon a wildfire in the backcountry, don’t try to put it out. It’s most likely already grown too large for you to put it out single handedly. Instead, head to safety as quickly as possible.
A climber’s trail shrouded in smoke in Glacier National Park
Reading The Smoke
A lot can be told about a wildfire from looking at its smoke.
- Plumes of white smoke mean the fire is quickly evaporating water in the objects it burns. Generally newer fires have whiter smoke.
- According to online wildfire-fighting strategy platform RedZone, grey smoke indicates that a fire is slowing down and running out of materials to burn.
- The Pacific Crest Trail Association says that smoke columns and the wind can be indicative of the direction the fire is moving. If the smoke is blowing towards you, you are in the immediate path of the fire.
How To Report A Wildfire
Take note of your location, and report it to 911 or the nearest park/ranger service immediately. Record your GPS coordinates, find a trail mile marker, or study your surroundings in order to describe it. Is the fire on a hill? Is it in a certain valley? Near a river? Note anything that could help rangers or fire crews pin down its exact location.
Surviving A Wildfire
If you’re out and a wildfire is heading your way, look for areas without flammable objects. Rocks, sand, and water bodies are going to be your best bet. Fire also travels uphill quicker than it does downhill, so look for low areas instead of high up spots when outrunning a wildfire.
If you are injured or stranded, make signals to alert your rescuers of your location. SOS satellite devices, reflective mirrors, mylar blankets, and whistles all come in handy when signaling for rescue. If worst comes to worst, and you are completely trapped by the fire, you can try to hunker down and insulate yourself. Scouting Magazine says that this can be achieved by submerging yourself in water, or digging a hole in the ground and covering yourself with dirt.
Wildfire on Pusch Ridge in the Catalina Mountains of Arizona