Wildfires are harmful to humans, but they’re an essential part of the ecosystem.
By turning dead and decaying matter into ash, nutrients return back to the soil instead of being trapped at the surface. Fires also help remove disease-ridden planets and harmful insects, like the Bark Beetles that have been killing trees all over the Sierra Nevada Mountains. They also create a clearing that allows sunlight to hit the forest floor and allows a new generation of plants to grow.
Fires are just part of what nature does to keep itself balanced, and part of what makes it so beautiful. That doesn’t make it any scarier or harder on us humans when one sparks.
But what do you do if a wildfire starts while you’re on the trail?
Before you start your hike, make sure you have a physical map of all the trails. If a wildfire does happen it is best to know your escape routes. Either leave from where you came, or go into another trail that has a safe route out.
Check current conditions. See if there are any nearby fires or trail closures in effect before your hike. You can call the ranger station at the National Park, State Park, or Forest, or visit a website like InciWeb to check on current conditions. Don’t go if the conditions are unsafe. You’ll risk your life and the lives of the rescue team if you need to be saved.
Carry your 10 essentials
1. Navigation: Map, Compass, Altimeter, GPS Device, Personal Locator Beacon or Satellite Messenger. I use the Garmin In-Reach Explorer + which combines all of these.
2. Headlamp with extra batteries.
3. Sun protection: Sunglasses, Sun-Protective Clothes and Sunscreen.
5. Knife plus a gear repair kit.
6. Fire Starters: Matches, Lighter, Tinder and/or a Stove.
7. Shelter: Carry this at all times, it can be as simple as an emergency blanket or a light bivy.
8. Food with extra food beyond the minimum expected.
9. Water with extra water beyond the minimum expected.
10. Extra clothes with layers.
What to do on the trail
Wildfires can grow quickly, especially in areas of heavy vegetation.
If you spot a fire, analyze which way the wind is blowing. If the smoke is blowing straight up, there is little to no wind. Which is a good sign. But if it’s blowing in one direction or the other, that will tell you which way the fire is likely to spread.
Fires burn uphill because it’s preheating the vegetation in front of it. So head down, not up the mountain. Travel downhill to dirt roads, stream beds with little vegetation, flat rock fields, or even meadows are better than being in the forest, away from where the fire is likely to spread. Always keep your distance and move away from the flames as quickly as possible. Use that map you brought along to see which trails are nearby to be an exit route.
If you find yourself in an active fire zone, the safest location to be is where the fire has already burned. Fires can spread faster than you can run, so if you’re already in an active fire situation, that can be deadly. According to Deputy Chief Scott McLean with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, “lay down on your stomach with your feet pointed toward the fire. Dig a hole and stick your face in it to avoid breathing in smoke. If you have a handkerchief, put that over your face as well. Hunker down, and the fire might change directions. It also might burn around you. But stay there for a good amount of time so there’s no chance of it coming back at you.” If the fire passes around you, find a way out, but stick to the burned areas whenever possible, but watch out for trees and branches which could fall at any time. If possible, give yourself distance between you and the damaged trees.
Hiking in smoky conditions
Wildfires produce smoke and smoke can irritate your lungs, eyes, nose, and throat. Some of the dangers that accompany breathing in wildfire smoke include coughing, wheezing, asthma, lung disease, and heart disease.
Wear a specific type of mask called a “particulate respirator.”
- To make sure you have the right mask, it must follow the provided criteria:
- Make sure it is called a particulate respirator.
- Make sure it has either “N95” or “P100” along with the word “NIOSH”.
- Make sure it has two straps (DO NOT choose a mask with one strap).
- Make sure it fits well over your.
The correct way to put the mask on is to make sure it covers your mouth and nose. It should cover your nose completely and go underneath your chin. Place one strap over your ear and one under your ear so it has optimal grip on your head to provide optimal protection.
Use a new mask each day the smoke is still in your area. Do not use a dirty mask, or a mask with anything broken.
Masks such as surgical masks, plastic masks, tissues covering your mouth and nose, or bandanas will not provide the necessary protection from wildfire smoke.
Around 80 to 90% of wildfires are started by people. Don’t be the cause. Do your part to prevent wildfires on and off the trail.
I live and grew up in Southern California and have been around massive wildfires. Especially with the Woosley Fire in 2018 and the Thomas Fire in 2017. Both of those where right where I live. I watched my family and friends get evacuated, entire neighborhoods burn down, people lose their homes, and many animals die. Both of those where man started wildfires. Yes, wildfires are essential to the environment, but the National Park Service and National Forest Service do controlled burns during the time of the year when the fires are less likely to spread and affect communities. So let’s do our part to prevent people from losing their lives and communities from watching their homes burn down.
Ways you can prevent wildfires off the trail
1. Don’t throw cigarette buds on the ground, especially near vegetation.
2. Do not park your car on dry vegetation.
3. Do not burn any yard waste that you may have.
4. Do not set off fireworks near any dry vegetation. Depending on where you are, it may be illegal to set of fireworks most of the year. Where I live, there is only one town that lets you light fireworks and it’s only on the 4th of July.
5. Do not burn anything unusual or combustible.
6. Do not burn anything at all when the wind speed is high! In Southern California this is especially true in the fall months during the Santa Ana winds.
7. When you are burning items, only burn them in controlled areas.
Ways you can prevent wildfires on the trail
1. Always put out your campfire before bed. If you come across someone else’s smoldering campfire, put it out. Overnight, if winds pick up, those hot coals can spread and cause a forest fire.
2. Make sure the campfire is in a controlled and safe area (no vegetation in a 10 ft radius).
3. Do not make fires larger than three feet wide.
4. Only burn firewood.
5. Keep a supply of water and a shovel handy in case it gets out of hand.
6. Only smoke is designated smoking areas in the park.