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07/08/2014 by Brian Eagen Click to Tweet

Wildfire Safety Tips while Backpacking

Every year an average of 70,000 wildfires are started, burning over 8 million acres of land in the United States. Current land management protocols allow fires that are started on public lands, from natural causes (lightning or lava), and which do not threaten personal property or human lives, to continue to burn. This is an essential process for keeping forests and grasslands healthy. However of those annual fires, over 60,000 (85%) of them are caused by humans and must be contained (1).

Wildfire prevention costs the federal government over 3 billion dollars annually. In severe drought years, such as the one we're currently in, a rise of 7% (or 210 million dollars) is anticipated.

Backcountry travellers and car campers alike can help reduce the costs and repercussions of a serious fire by learning and abiding by the local land agency fire restrictions and practices. However, it is important to also educate yourself on what to do if you are caught in a wildfire.

Before a Wildfire Starts

Assessing the current wildfire threat levels and fire restrictions should be one of the first tasks you complete when planning a trip. Depending on the level of fire restrictions currently in place you may be limited in the following ways:

  • Campfires- Restrictions can be in place where campfires are only allowed in designated rings, certain campgrounds, below certain elevations, or not permitted at all. When permitted, campfires should be small and under constant supervision. Before going to sleep or departing, all fires should be doused with water and cool to the touch. Never leave a fire unattended!
  • Stoves- Use of liquid, canister, or petroleum jelly stoves are usually permitted. During severe times only cold camping is allowed. Pay special attention to twig and alcohol based stoves, as they often have special rules.
  • Fireworks- Most land agencies don't allow the use of fireworks at any time.
  • Smoking- Depending on the fire threat level you may need to smoke within designated buildings or inside a vehicle. Embers from partially snubbed cigarettes are one of the primary sources of human caused fires. Click to Tweet
  • Off-Road Vehicle- Spark arresting devices such as generators, machinery, and off-road vehicles are frequently allowed, but high fire risk bans all three options.
Fire Threat Levels Sign

Some state and land agencies require (often free) permits for any backcountry travel. California, for instance, has a one-year permit that is easy to obtain online. Permits provide further information regarding when you can and cannot use certain items.

Understanding current restrictions can go a long way towards reducing human-caused fires, however as an outdoor community we have to hold ourselves and each other accountable. Many people are uninformed and still use the wilderness. If you come across someone who is violating a current fire ban, and if you feel comfortable with the situation, please inform them of their transgression in a polite and educational manner. Folks that are blatantly violating current policies should be reported to the governing land agency as soon as possible.

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During a Wildfire

Before heading out, research currently active wildfires by visiting InciWeb and/or contacting the land management agencies where you will be travelling. They can provide information regarding current wildfire movement, risk levels, and active fire restrictions.

While you are in the backcountry pay attention to the warning signs that a wildfire may be close by.

Look- Can you see a red glow along the horizon at night? Do you see orange smoke?

Listen- Do you hear air traffic from helicopters spotting fire or planes dropping fire retardants?

Smell- Can you smell smoke?

If you observe any of these signs then it's a good idea to begin a safe and efficient evacuation of the area. Wildfires can grow and change directions with remarkable speed. Even if you know where the fire is you could still be in danger.

The DOs and DONTs when caught in a Wildfire

Before you are Caught

Wildfire DO's DO Try to get around the fire.
Wildfire DO's DO Travel upwind and downhill.
Wildfire DO's DO Travel on dirt roads, rocks, or streambeds.
Wildfire DON'Ts DON'T Travel through passes and/or canyons.

If you can't Maneuver away from a Wildfire

Wildfire DON'Ts DON'T Try to outrun a wildfire.
Wildfire DO's DO Try to get behind the fire.
Wildfire DO's DO Find a low spot in a streambed, sandbar, or other open spot.
Wildfire DON'Ts DON'T Stay in a spot with overhanging branches or foliage.
Wildfire DO's DO Clear away as much debris before the fire arrives as possible.

If Caught by a Wildfire

Wildfire DO's DO Lay down on your stomach with your feet pointed towards the fire.
Wildfire DO's DO Cover your body with non-synthetic clothing to shield you from the heat.
Wildfire DON'Ts DON'T Wet your clothes.
Wildfire DO's DO Cover your mouth with a moist cloth.
Wildfire DO's DO Try to avoid breathing in the smoke.
Wildfire DON'Ts DON'T Run away from your safe zone.
Wildfire DO's DO Once the fire passes assess your situation and find a way out behind the path of the fire.

After a Wildfire

When planning a trip into an area that was previously burned out you need to pay attention to some issues that may arise.

  • -Water that is indicated on the map may in fact be less reliable. Without the canopy of trees and shrubs many water sources could be dry or at least less active.
  • -On the other side of things make sure to avoid streams, washes, and hills during periods of intense rain. Mudslides and flash floods are increased hazards due to the grounds inability to hold the water after a fire.
  • -If the trail disappears while hiking, try to follow the path of least resistance.
  • -Avoid downed logs and the areas around stumps. The wood around stumps and logs can easily cause foot entrapment and injury.
  • -The biggest hazard is often falling trees. When choosing a campsite, avoid areas where trees have been burnt out.

After a wildfire passes through an area it is often looked upon as damaged or ugly. However, this life-sustaining cycle provide a beautiful look into the rebirth of the ecosystem; nature's reset button. By travelling carefully through fire restricted areas, and being aware during active wildfires, we can continue to appreciate the wilderness without putting ourselves or other at risk.

The Beta:

-For the most current information regarding active wildfires visit InciWeb.

-For a map of current major fires along with more information regarding fire-safe practices visit Smokey Bear.


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