By Lucy Higgins • June 14, 2022
Summer undoubtedly comes with its perks when venturing outside. There’s longer days to spend exploring, fewer layers to don, and those perfectly orange sunsets. But with the endless sunshine comes the season’s own handful of risks, and as climate change continues on its unpredictable path, there’s one thing we do know—wildfires are becoming increasingly more prevalent. In the U.S.’s West, fires are also starting earlier in the year, thanks to the region’s continual drought. For trail users of all ilk, it raises the question, how do we keep getting outside while practicing safe fire management and avoidance?
Fortunately, judging the current fire danger doesn’t have to be a personal call. The National Fire Danger Rating System (NFDRS) allows fire managers to quantitatively figure the potential dangers of fire in their region based on factors like fuel, weather, topography, and additional risks. The color-coded ratings, which range from Low to Moderate, High, Very High, and Extreme, outline the potential for large-scale fire to spread and if they’ll need active measures taken. Check in with your fire department, ranger station, or other fire manager in your area before even hitting the trail.
Don’t just stop at the NFDRS, though. InciWeb keeps updated intel on existing wildfires and is always worth checking. Then, a quick read through of the weather forecast—scan for heat waves and thunderstorms, which increase fire likelihood—and your region’s air quality will help you make an informed decision before heading out.
Plan and Prepare
After making the call that it’s appropriate to venture out, there’s no reason not to still pack some safety measures. The first one, in fact, doesn’t even take up space in your bag: map out an alternative route to your trip, and be sure to tell a family member or close friend what your plan is for your day(s) out and register at the trailhead. That way, should a wildfire begin to spread near where you’re traveling, they’ll be able to alert you—and authorities—should need be.
That brings up the next tool to bring along: a satellite phone or communicator. This should be on the pack list regardless of wildfire danger, but if something were to start to spread, you’ll want a means of communication more reliable than the cracked iPhone at the bottom of your backpack.
Some hikers like to wear thick-soled boots as well, as an extra protection against smoldering grounds should the worst case develop and you’re caught in a spreading wildfire.
Managing Worst-Case Scenario
If, for some reason after checking the forecasts and radars, you still get caught in a wildfire or see signs of an emerging fire—try to remain calm. There are a few steps you can take to begin to evacuate yourself from that region.
The first step is to use that trusty satellite phone or communicator. After you’ve alerted your emergency contact and/or the appropriate fire manager, it’s time to start physically removing yourself from that area. Revisit both your route and alternative route. Which will take you out of harm’s way quickly and safely? Consider any trail closures and other blockages that could end up circling you back or further re-routing. Having a paper map and compass, and knowing how to use them, is key.
As you evacuate yourself, a few rules to remember: Fire moves quickest uphill, so if you do see flames, try to travel below them. Avoid any gullies or chutes that could funnel flames to you. The larger the smoke column, the larger the fire is, and if it’s bending a certain direction in the wind, that is the direction the fire is spreading. The less vegetation there is in an area, the less there is to catch ablaze. Consider traveling through flat, unvegetated areas if possible.
Once you’re out of harm’s way, and if you haven’t already, now is the time to alert authorities immediately on where you were and what you discovered. The sooner a fire can be mitigated, the less likely it will be to spread.