Thanks to a dry January/February and a snowpack with water content at 17% of normal, wildfire season in California has begun. Firefighters have responded to over 680 wildfires so far, 200 more than average, and there’s already been thousands of evacuations and property damage in Southern California.
The idea of watching your home and all the memories it contains go up in flames is heartbreaking. One day you have everything you need: shelter from the weather, a place to make meals, a gathering place for loved ones…the next thing you know, it’s all gone. Not only your stuff, but the very meaning of what home is for you. It’s practically unfathomable. But what if you’re not at home when you feel the heat of flames?
When we went hiking at Point Reyes a couple weeks ago, I took a picture of a tree that caught my eye. I liked the contrast of dark and light, of burned and healthy.
I did a little research when we got back, and it turns out in 1995 the Vision Fire swept through this area of the North Bay, burning over 12,000 acres, due to an illegal campfire. And it got me thinking, an illegal campfire could happen anytime. How would I survive? More importantly, how could I increase chances that my faithful hiking buddy would survive?
Start Smart – Tell people where you’re going. Check the National Weather Service and the National/State/Regional Park website for fire forecasts or alerts. Pay attention to fire danger levels posted at park entrances and trailheads. Think about postponing your hike if danger levels are high or thunderstorms are forecast. Have a map or be familiar with the trails and landscape of where you’ll be hiking.
Be Alert – Keep your senses open. Smell smoke? See smoke? Red/orange glow on the horizon? If the threat is not imminent, leave the area immediately.
If flames get close…
Consider your positioning. You’re a smart hiker and carry a map with you, right? Use what you know about the landscape to get to the safest possible location. Consider trying to get around the fire by moving into the wind and downhill. Never run uphill, and avoid canyons or any other natural chimneys formed by the landscape. Can’t get around the fire? Also consider going through the fire. If the flames are less than four feet wide and you see black/burned ground behind them, take a breath of cool air low to the ground to prevent your lungs from searing and run through the flames.
Figure out where to make a stand. If you can’t get around or through the fire, your primary goal should be getting to a location with the least amount of foliage as possible. Look for nearby bodies of water…lakes or large ponds are your best best, especially if you’re a strong swimmer. Swim out into the middle and stay under water as much as possible to avoid radiating heat. Rocky areas, caves, and wide trails with little to no underbrush also provide possible natural firebreaks. If you find yourself in one of these areas when flames get close, lay facedown on the ground and cover yourself with as much non-synthetic, nonflammable material as possible. This includes dirt, however, if you try burying your whole body (head included), suffocation becomes a considerable threat.
Protect yourself. If you have to make a stand, try to protect yourself as much as possible. Superheated air from a large fire will sear your lungs. Wrap a wet piece of cloth over your nose and mouth and breath as close to the ground as possible. Right before the flames go over you, remove any synthetic clothing, it’ll melt into your skin. That being said, you want the least amount of skin exposed as possible, so cover it with whatever you can, including dirt. Wool is one of the best fabrics to have in this situation. Also, I found this counterintuitive when you’re facing a heated situation, but it’s recommended that you don’t get your clothing wet. The heat from the fire can cause your clothing to steam, burning you worse than dry clothes or no clothes would have.
Above all else, don’t panic! Staying rational will help you assess the situation and figure out which option is best for survival.
I desperately hope that I never find myself in a situation where I’ll have to use these tips, but I’m glad I’ve taken steps to make myself a smarter hiker. Knowledge is power, and it could mean the difference between life and death for me and Pita. I hope you’ll keep this post in mind as you set out to hike during wildfire season.
Have you ever experienced a wildfire closer than you’d like?