One of my closest friends, Zoe, snagged a permit to hike the 215 miles of the John Muir Trail last summer. The two piled into a car and drove southeast of Yosemite National Park to prepare.
She told me this year that wildfires weren’t really on her radar. When they headed out, the area wasn’t at risk of fire. Our position was high, though. We thought, “Maybe that is smoke on the horizon. Maybe not.” when we noticed a flat cloud on the horizon.
After passing a couple who confirmed that a fire was burning somewhere ahead, they started to smell fumes. They went back the way they came and set up camp for the night with plans to finish their retreat the following day.
Upon waking the following morning, we found ourselves completely engulfed in smoke, Zoe said. “We were coughing when we awoke. On the way down to the trailhead, she wore a mask and a buff to protect herself from the sun.
A few days later, they discovered the Creek Fire, a fire that became the fourth-largest in California history. Approximately 400,000 acres would burn before it was contained on New Year’s Eve. The nearest one was 25 miles away, based on Zoe’s estimation.
You’ve probably planned around natural hazards if you’ve ever gone backcountry skiing, sea kayaking, or floated down whitewater. Checked weather reports, dam releases, tide charts, and avalanche forecasts before you began. If you’ve given up on the idea of setting up rescue lines, you’ve already learned how to use beacons and probes.
It’s clear to see that hikers and backpackers alike should position themselves to deal with fire risk the same way: as a fundamental part of their trip planning, and not as an afterthought.
You probably weren’t taught about it, considering how drastically things have changed since you were a kid. In order to plan for fire in backcountry areas, we talked to land managers and trail groups.
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Kindra Ramos, outreach director for Washington Trails Association, stresses the importance of knowing where not to go.
There are now many online hiking maps that include information on active fires. Fire data across the Mountain West is included on the Pacific Crest Trail Association’s map. (You can access this by clicking on the three stacked squares in the upper-left corner of the map.)
Ben Mayberry, a recreation and land-use manager with the Washington Department of Natural Resources, believes drawing a parallel between avalanche risk and recreation is an intuitive way to think about it. You’d normally think about what’s on top of your head but this stuff stacks on top of it. He cautioned, however, “the big caveat is that avalanches are much more of a science that can be understood.” What the terrain is like should be emphasized. Unlike hurricanes or tornadoes, wildfires are unpredictable. Would you plan around one of those events?”
In addition to standard features such as mapping fires and displaying satellite-detected heat layers, Gaia GPS includes more in-depth add-ons for fire information. (Gaia GPS software is owned by the same parent company as Outside. Outside+ members are currently entitled to Gaia GPS Premium.)
An Overview of Smoke Predictions
There have been some tools developed in the past few years to monitor and even predict the air-quality index, a measure of airborne particulate matter. An air-quality index above 100 will likely be harmful to someone with asthma or other health conditions, while 150 is harmful to anyone.
Maps of smoke are available for download from the Pacific Crest Trail Association as well as Gaia GPS. The National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration produces a smoke-monitoring tool that provides a state-by-state map, but only for the current day. (This tool maps multiple pollutants, so you may want to look at maps of surface smoke.)
Find out more about fire smoke at FireSmoke.ca. It includes major fires all across North America and forecasts smoke levels roughly two days out.
“There may be a lot of wildfire smoke around or things are changing so quickly,” Mayberry explains.
Zoe and he both plan to backpack with N-95 masks. Nevertheless, I find it interesting. Would we be reaching for masks if we had not worn them for the past 18 months?His response was, “That’s what I said.”. Without COVID, I would never have thought of bringing an N-95 with me. When wearing a medical mask, I would think, “Surely I shouldn’t be here.”
In order to hike the John Muir Trail, Zoe canceled her plans due to smoke from the Creek Fire. “The Sierra were on fire,” she said. “It sucks, but there’s nothing you can do about it. It’s pretty dumb to push on. Some people will continue to hike in smoke, and I saw people doing that, but what’s the point? You can’t see far. The views aren’t as good.”
Making a route plan
Once you have chosen an area that is smoke- and fire-free, you should check with local agencies for any trail closures or burn restrictions, which can help you choose a route and provide you with information about the area’s potential fire danger.
Pacific Crest Trail Association director of communications Scott Wilkinson said, “Trail closures often start and end far from a fire.” There are good reasons for doing this. A firefighter may choose to get off the trail miles away from the fire itself, either to ensure nobody could impede their efforts or because it may be the best place to do so. In these and other reasons, hikers must obey trail closures and not look around to see if they see any smoke or flames.
Ramos, with the Washington Trail Association, suggested bringing a map showing the whole area. Having a clear idea of your destination is vital, so that you can plan an alternative off-trail route if necessary.
Also look at the map for general indications of evacuation routes: look for places along the way where you could cut over to a road or otherwise shorten the journey and seek assistance.
Moreover, the longer you are out, the more risky things become, simply because you won’t have up to date information.
Mayberry believes it’s always a good idea to carry a satellite communicator on longer trips. By sending a friend the latest information when you notice smoke or the air quality is poor, you could plan an evacuation if necessary.
In addition to this, it is important to let someone know where you will be, as well as which websites to check. You should also let local rangers know your itinerary if you plan on hiking a long distance or staying overnight, just in case the weather suddenly changes and they need to evacuate.
A Trail Fire Can Be Dangerous: What to Do
If conditions get too bad, you need to be willing to bail.
“It’s all about being aware of the situation,” Ramos said. If you are smelling or seeing smoke all of a sudden, I would recommend leaving as soon as possible.
Take time to gather information if you find yourself near a fire.
In Mayberry’s opinion, the only thing he recommends is communicating with someone. If you want to avoid heading into the fire, use a satellite device to get a report on where it is and where it’s moving.
It will depend on the terrain and state of the fire a great deal on how you should evacuate if you find yourself in a dangerous situation despite taking all the precautions. However, certain principles apply to all. Avoid staying on ridges above flames since fire tends to spread faster uphill. The chutes will cause flames to shoot upward, so stay away from them. An area with less vegetation will be safer. If you know where a fire is heading, get out of its path. Fast-moving fires can’t be outrun. Wear light-colored clothing and gear so first responders can see you.
I spoke with a few experts who believe your chances of getting into an emergency situation are slim if you’re up to date on conditions, and you’re prepared to turn back at the first sign of smoke. It should not be at risk for your safety to enjoy a great view, said Ramos. ‘There’s always tomorrow. There’s always the trail.’