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Is There A Wildfire On My Hike Wildfire Tips For Hikers

Is There a Wildfire On My Hike? Wildfire Tips for Hikers

In This Guide
  • Where To Find Trail Closure Notices
  • Tracking Wildfires Over a Trail Map
  • Preparing For Wildfires When Hiking
  • What To Do If You Encounter a Wildfire

As a hiker, dealing with wildfires is more and more of a reality these days. As with most things hiking, being prepared and informed goes a long way toward safely dealing with wildfires. First off, you’re going to want to know if there’s a wildfire affecting your hike. And when you’re out on the trail, you’re going to want to know how to deal with wildfires that pop up. In this guide, we’ll cover it all.

A big thanks to my numerous friends at CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service whose shared their wisdom and insight for this guide.

Is There a Wildfire On My Hike?

Apple Fire Tv

A common scenario is that you see a wildfire on TV and you’re not sure if it’s going to affect your hike. Wildfires often have generic names like “the Apple Fire” that don’t tell you a lot about where it is. The first thing I generally do is check the Inciweb website to see what fires are happening now.

Inciweb Website
The Inciweb website lets you browse a map to see what wildfires or other natural disasters are occurring. It’s run by the US Forest Service and draws on data from multiple agencies.
Iniweb Detail Page
Clicking into a detail page will give you more information on the wildfire. Check the “closures” tab to see the affected area.

It’s important to note that even if your hike isn’t in the wildfire area, the entire jurisdiction may be closed.

If your wildfire isn’t on Inciweb, your next step is to check the state and local fire incident websites. For example, in California, we have the CalFire site which has fires that may not make it onto Inciweb (at least initially).

Once I know where the wildfire is, I’ll go to the park or municipality Twitter page and check for any closures and fire updates. In my experience, Twitter usually has the most up to date closure information.

San Bernardino Forest Twitter
Twitter is a great way to find out about the current status of a fire, including closures.

Tracking The WildFire In Detail

If you want to dig down and see a fire in detail, I recommend Caltopo.com, which is a powerful mapping website that I often use to plan and analyze hikes. Caltopo has a layer called “Fire Activity” that you can switch on and get the latest fire reports overlayed onto a map of your choice. You can then overlay other imagery, such as daily satellite photos, that let you see where the smoke is blowing, and then deduce the likely path of the fire.

Caltpo Fire=tracking
In this CalTopo setup, I’ve overlaid current fire activity on a daily satellite photo and then on top of a standard map.
Caltopo Fire Detail
In this view, I’ve overlaid the current fire information on top of a topographic map with trails. I can see which trails are in the forest fire and which ones are not.

Fire Tracking Video

Update!

Gaia Fire Layer
Gaia GPS has a new fire layer overlay which is really easy to see and overlay onto trail maps. It’s usually only available with paid memberships, but they do make it free to the public sometimes.

Being Prepared For Wildfires On Your Hike

Cucamonga Peak Hike permit
Filling out something as simple as a free self-permit at the trailhead can let rescuers know that you are out on the trail in case of a wildfire.

I know I don’t have to say it, but I will. If there’s an active fire anywhere near the area that you are going to hike, don’t go. And as I mentioned earlier when talking about CalTopo, if your hike is in the path of the smoke, give your lungs a break and go somewhere else. Here’s what I recommend that you do to prepare for a wildfire on your hike.

Want to see the wildfire history in CA? This is another cool website that visualizes it on a map (thanks to David C).

What Happens If I See A Wildfire On My Hike?

High Camp Wildfire
When you see something like this, it’s time to go. Incredible photo of the Apple Fire from High Camp from 13enman

The thing to do is to get out as soon as possible. Getting out may be a challenge depending on where you are relative to the fire. You are going to have to stay calm, make a plan, and then get moving. In a situation like this, having an InReach device and hitting the SOS button is absolutely the best thing you can do. You will be connected with a team of professionals who can guide you out based on real-time conditions and maybe even organize an evacuation if it makes sense. If you don’t have an InReach, it’s going to be a little tougher.

In most firefighter fatalities … the unsuccessful strategy has been to try and run away from the fire and continue running until exhaustion or the radiant heat load from the fire front fells the victim and allows the flame front to pass over him or her. Australian Forest Research Report on Wildfires

What Happens If I Get Caught In Fire

Wild Fire Wildfire Jungle
Would you run through this? It could be the best option to survive.

Let’s say the worse happens and you are trapped. The good news is that many people have survived in this situation, and you have a chance to survive too. The key word is “chance;” folks have died using these methods too. But if there’s no escaping the flames, it’s time to start fighting.

Burn Out a Safety Area

When trapped by a wildfire some Native Americans would “burn out” a safety area. The idea is that you burn down a section of the wild and take refuge in it so that when the main wildfire arrives, there will be no fuel in your burned out area. It’s an option to use with care; you wouldn’t want to start a new wildfire. But if you think you can make this happen and the area you are in will surely burn anyway, it’s a smart option. Hopefully you’ve got fire-starting materials with you. And of course, make sure you are upwind of the area that you want to burn.

Break Through the Fire

The idea is that by running through the flame front, you minimize your exposure and quickly get to the safe burned-out area behind the fire. Ideally you’ll move toward the flank of a fire or an area where there isn’t intense fuel and flames (like a clearing) and make a break through the wall of the fire. It might seem crazy, but people have survived, albeit with serious burns, by using this method.

Hunker Down

If the flames are going to engulf your location and there’s no getting out, hunkering down is your move.

If You See An Open Campfire

Lassen Campfire
Some primitive campsites have fire rings and allow open campfires. Check the regulations for the area before you head out. Photo Lassen NP

Not all open campfires in the backcountry are illegal, it just depends on where you are. But the fire danger can be massive, especially if the conditions are very dry. And even when a campfire is not illegal, most folks with good intentions just don’t understand the risk involved. The sad fact is that most wildfires start from campfires.

When I encounter folks in the backcountry with open campfires, I’ll say hello and start a friendly conversation. Then I ask about their intentions with the fire. That’s a good time to bring up the fact that most wildfires come from campfires and ask them to ensure that they put the fire out completely. And if their fire is illegal, you can gently bring up that point as well. Most of the time when this happens, people are very apologetic and didn’t realize what the situation was.

I’ve only had one time where people learned that a fire was illegal, but wouldn’t put it out. I ended up hiking out, calling 911 and reporting it. I didn’t care how much they said they had it under control. The fire was putting people’s lives in danger, and that’s a problem.

And sometimes you come across an abandoned campfire or smoldering fire. To put it out, douse it with water or dirt, and stir up the embers and dirt with a stick. Scrape any embers off of burning wood and put them out. Then bury the whole thing.

90% of all wildfires are started by humans – National Park Service

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