Smoke Signals: Wildfire Safety Precautions for a Fiery Year

22 May
Photo: Wildfire

A wildfire in Waldo Canyon, Colorado. Photograph by Colleen Pinski, My Shot

Skies across the nation have been darkened by smoke from forest fires. These same forests are the very destinations we set for adventures, so it is of utmost importance this summer to plan with particular attention to fire risk and wildfire danger.

First and most simply, reconsider your means of preparing dinner. Campfires, though delightful and mesmerizing (caveman TV), can be risky, particularly in extremely dry environments. Stoves, when used properly, can prevent accidental forest fires. This may not be your choice; check with your local land management agencies about fire restrictions.

The same land management agencies may put closures into effect due to existing widlfires. If there are no closures but risk is high or fires are burning in the region, prepare multiple routes with a variety of exit points.

“The chances of getting caught in the path of a fast-moving wildfire are probably low,” said NOLS Director of Risk Management Drew Leemon. However, he offered a few tips for responding to a nearby fire in the backcountry.[1]

Recognizing and mitigating possible wildfire risks:

  • If you see a column of smoke from a distance, move well away from the area to give the fire a wide berth (a mile or more) in case the wind shifts and the fire moves toward you.
  • Fire moves faster uphill, so move downhill.
  • If you see or smell smoke during the day or see a red/orange glow at night, a fire is nearby.
  • If you hear crackling or see sparks, the wildfire could be less than one mile away.

Responding to immediate wildfire risks:

  • If a wildfire is close by and moving your way, find a place to make a stand.
  • You cannot outrun a wildfire.
  • Fire moves faster uphill, so move downhill when identifying a place to make a stand.
  • The greatest risk of injury or death is from superheated air that can sear your lungs.
  • Find an area away from fire fuels, if possible, such as a meadow, gravel or sand bar, or swampy/wet area.
  • Lie down and try to find a pocket of cool air to breathe; wrapping a wet cloth (cotton or wool) around your head can help.
  • If a body of water is nearby, get into the water and sit or tread water, keeping your head near the water surface.
  • Protect your feet, lungs, and eyes.
  • Remove synthetic clothing if possible, which melts at lower temperatures than wool (wool is best at resisting heat and flame).
  • Resist the urge to run. Heat rises and running may cause you to breathe superheated air.
  • The leading edge of a fire/wall of flames will likely pass by in about 30-60 seconds.

Staying safe behind or far from a fire:

  • Try to avoid hiking through recently burned areas. If you must travel through such areas, be careful as debris can still be very hot, dead trees can fall, or fallen logs can split and emit sparks or embers.
  • Report fires as soon as possible.
  • You may encounter thick smoke from fires burning tens or even hundreds of miles away.
  • This smoke will likely descend from the upper atmosphere rather than from the nearby ground surface.
  • It may “pool” in the bottoms of valleys at night.
  • There is not much you can do to escape it except wait for the wind to blow it out.
  • This smoke can exacerbate respiratory conditions (asthma) due to the particulates and physical activity may increase the detrimental health effects.
  • Visibility is the simplest gauge of significance. If visibility is less than three miles, everyone should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion; at three to nine miles children, the elderly and people with pre-existing respiratory conditions should avoid prolonged or heavy exertion; if visibility is 10 miles or more, restrictions in activity are not necessary.

Smoke Signals: Wildfire Safety Precautions for a Fiery Year


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