Wildfires - Safety Tips and Prevention

Forest Wildfire

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 starting

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 call 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 the lives of the rescue team if you need to be saved.

Wildfire burning trees

Always tell someone where you are going and leave a detailed itinerary.

Make sure you have the Ten Essentials:

  1. Navigation: map, compass, altimeter, GPS device, personal locator beacon (PLB) or satellite messenger

  2. Headlamp: plus extra batteries

  3. Sun protection: sunglasses, sun-protective clothes and sunscreen

  4. First aid: including foot care and insect repellent (as needed)

  5. Knife: plus a gear repair kit

  6. Fire: matches, lighter, tinder and/or stove

  7. Shelter: carried at all times (can be a light emergency bivy)

  8. Extra food: Beyond the minimum expectation

  9. Extra water: Beyond the minimum expectation

  10. Extra clothes: Beyond the minimum expectation

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 road, 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.

Wild campfire

Wildfire prevention

80-90% of wildfires are started by people. Don’t be the cause, and do your part to prevent fires both on and off the trail.

Ways to help prevent wildfires off the trail include methods such as:

  • Not throwing cigarette buds on the ground (especially near vegetation).

  • Do not park your car on dry vegetation.

  • Do not burn any yard waste you may have.

  • Do not set off fireworks near any dry vegetation.

  • Do not burn anything unusual or combustible.

  • Do not burn anything when the wind speed is high.

  • When burning items, only burn them in controlled areas.

Ways to prevent wildfires on the trail include methods such as:

  • 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.

  • Make sure the campfire is in a controlled and safe area (no vegetation in a 10 ft radius).

  • Do not make fires larger than three feet wide.

  • Only burn firewood.

  • Keep a supply of water and a shovel handy in case it gets out of hand.

  • Only smoke in designated smoking areas in the park.

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