Wildfires are just a (scary) fact of life here in the Western US. While they are a natural part of the ecosystem, far too many wildfires are human caused.
Between increasingly hot, dry conditions and more and more irresponsible people heading into the outdoors each year, our wildfires are only becoming more frequent and more severe than ever.
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Wildfires are a very real, added, risk to hikers, backpackers, and residents in the west, especially later in the summer and fall – basically until the snow returns. Whether you live in wildfire country or maybe traveling to wildfire country, here’s what you need to know before you go.
85-90% of wildfires in the US are human-caused. Most wildfires that are naturally caused occur from lightning strikes. Looking at the regional map below – imagine with me for a second that 90% of those fires were never started. Imagine how efficiently our firefighters could fight only 10% of those fires at once, instead of being forced to spread our personnel, resources, funds, planes, and helicopters so thinly to attempt to contain each of those fires.
On average, more than 100,000 wildfires clear 4-5 million acres of land in the U.S. every year. In recent years, wildfires have burned up to 9 million acres of land.
It can take up to 5 years for reforestation to even begin and life to start to return to a burn area. Pioneer species of plants and fungus are the first to return after a wildfire – one of them being our beloved Aspen trees.
Wildfires are more dangerous than just the obvious spreading flames. After a forest has been decimated from a wildfire, flash flooding and landslides often follow because the land and (lack of) soil is so unstable.
The most common cause of wildfires is humans, more specifically, some of the causes are listed here in order of most common to least common:
- Unattended campfires
- Burning trash and natural debris
- Tossed cigarette butts
- Equipment use and malfunction
- Arson – I’d like to include explosive gender reveals on this line. Can we just make those a thing of the past already??
How To Prevent Wildfires
- Never start a fire, for any reason, during a fire ban or on a dry, windy day. It really can be as simple as that.
- Always report an unattended fire if you see one.
- Follow your municipalty’s rules on burning trash or debris in your yard. Or better yet, haul it away.
- Never leave a fire unattended and be 100% sure it is extinguished before you walk away. Our rule of thumb is if you can stick your hands in the coals, it’s out. If you’re too nervous to stick your hands in the coals – you need to apply more water, my friend.
- Never throw a cigarette butt out of your car window, or on the ground in the woods or fields. Keep a small disposable, plastic bottle with a lid and a little water in it to stash your butts in.
- Never fly a drone over or near an active fire – the helicopters and air tankers literally can not fly and drop water on a fire if citizens are flying drones around trying to become Instafamous.
Wildfire Safety & Preparedness
As a hiker and backpacker, always keep an eye on current news, maps and updates to see if there are any fires burning in the area you want to go hiking or backpacking in.
While this is up to each individual, if there are any fires nearby, I would just cancel that trip, reschedule for the next winter or spring, or choose a different location, like Maine 😉
Again, this may personal preference, but I really just don’t think it’s worth it to try to hike or travel to an active wildfire area. The air quality is most likely going to be really bad, the visibility will be really low – so there goes your mountain vistas, plus, the hundreds and hundreds of emergency personnel brought in to fight fires already put enough (necessary) strain on the small communities and forest service roads surrounding wildfires.
I also can’t emphasize the value enough of always hiking with a two-way emergency GPS device like the Garmin InReach Mini. I’ll never forget a story from a fellow hiker who suddenly found herself surrounded by wildfire smoke on a trail and she had no way of knowing where the actual fire was.
So, she hit SOS on her Garmin, and emergency services reached out to her to ask what her emergency was and she explained the smoke. They were able to see where the fire was, where she was, and communicate with her to help her hike out on her own – which prevented a search and rescue team from going out to get her when really all she needed was information, support, and of course a watchful eye to make sure she made it out ok. And she did!
Outside of always having a way to call 911 in case of a fire, I’ve found these resources particularly useful when a wildfire broke out close to my home. Whether you’re a resident or visiting a town that’s at wildfire risk, check these out:
🔥 If you think you might need to evacuate your residence, pack a go-bag and get prepared with this – Readyforwildfire.org’s Go! Evacuation Guide
🔥 For mass emergency notifications – download the CodeRED mobile app
Wildfire Maps & Updates
Before traveling to another county or state, or to keep an eye on wildfires near you, always check these maps before you go. And, as I said earlier, if there are wildfires burning near the area you want to travel to – strongly consider rescheduling your trip or traveling to a safer destination.
🔥 For a large, nation-wide view of where current fires are burning + you can zoom in and click on individual fires for more details – Inciweb
🔥 For air quality and areas affected by smoke – AirNow Fire and Smoke Map
You can also check the county’s website or Facebook page for any news on fire bans and restrictions or current fire information, closures and evacuations.
After going through the panic of watching a wildfire spread nearby my home and watching the pre-evacuation and evacuation zones expand, I sincerely hope you never have to experience that.
Stay safe out there this season and let’s support our firefighters by either donating to your local fire department or at the very least, staying out of their way so they can do their jobs.
For more hiking safety tips, check out:
- What to include in your hiking itinerary
- First aid training for hikers and backpackers
- Campsite Safety Tips
- How to build your own hiking first aid kit