Hiking Wildfire Safety

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HIKING WILDFIRE SAFETY, Contributed by Karen Baldwin

The following is an informational paper presented by Karen, to Wednesday Evening Social Hikes as well as the Hiking & Survival Essentials class. These tips and essential safety guidelines are very helpful; providing us with some extra tools in our toolkit should we be confronted with a wildfire. Thanks, Karen!

Follow the Rules. This is too often ignored, with tragic consequences. If an area is closed to camping or hiking, then change your plans. If there is a burn ban in effect, honor all its limitations. Don’t try to substitute your own judgment, and don’t intentionally or negligently put yourself (or others) in harm’s way.

Take Reasonable Precautions. Before you go hiking, camping, or backpacking in any area, check online or telephone-accessible resources to learn of any current risk conditions, which will include high levels of fire risk or wildfires already burning in the area. Before traveling into fire risk areas (even at merely moderate risk), take the time to look at a topo / terrain map and plan multiple escape options from the planned route. Be sure to use trailhead registers and stick to your route; this is critical in the event authorities need to find and evacuate you.

Look for Warning Signs. While on the trail, if you smell or see smoke during the day, or see a red-orange glow on the horizon at night, a fire is nearby. If you hear crackling or see sparks in the air, a wildfire could be less than a mile away and you may be at extreme risk. If you see red-tailed tanker planes flying low overhead, they may well be carrying fire-retardant or water loads for nearby firefighting. If you see even the smallest wildfire, do not underestimate its danger to you – a small fire becomes a large fire shockingly fast.

Try to Get Around the Fire. If you are faced with the choice, try to get upwind and downhill of a wildfire, as fast as you can. GO DOWNHILL, not uphill — fires typically race uphill much faster than they travel downhill. GO INTO THE WIND, not with the wind at your back – fires will be pushed downwind much faster. Travel along routes that don’t easily burn, like dirt roads, wide trails, gravel, asphalt and rock, and along streams.

Try to Get Behind the Fire. If trapped by a wildfire, but lucky enough to see an area of very low-burning flame (where flames are no more than 4 feet high), behind which a blackened area shows no fuel remaining for the fire, seriously consider whether you can safely run or jump past the line of flame and into the blackened area. However, always remember that heat rises, so if you get up to run, you can breathe in superheated air and cause severe injury to yourself. Take a big breath of air closest to the ground, and hold your breath as you jump through the fire line. The ground surface of the just-burned area will still be hot, so keep running through and beyond it to a (hopefully) cooler area.

Try to Get Into a Wet Area. Find a wet place to lie down in. A swampy, boggy spot away from forest fuels is best. Small streams are unlikely to afford much protection, but are better than nothing. Dig yourself down into the streambed or pond bottom as deep as you can. Clear away any foliage hanging near or around you, as much as possible. If there is a larger body of water — like a large pond, river, or lake — swimming out to the middle and treading water is effective (but learn how to make a temporary float out of your tied pant legs or shirt). If you’re on a paddling trip, getting into the river under your canoe, kayak, or raft can shield you from the heat and provide you with a pocket of cool air to breathe.

Find a Place to Make Your Stand. You cannot outrun a wildfire. If you can’t get around or behind it, you may be left with no option but to find the best available spot to take what little shelter you can. If that happens, find the largest clearing you can — the bigger the area, the bigger your margin of protection. Sand bars, gravel washes, boulder or scree fields, and even small rocky areas offer at least some protection. Avoid canyons and saddles, which act as natural chimneys in which fire is channeled and concentrated. If given no other choice, lie face down on a non-flammable dirt surface, preferably in a depression or hole. Remove as much brush and grass from as wide an area around you as you can. Your odds will improve if you can find a pocket of cool air to breathe and can be shielded above from falling burning debris.

Shield Your Body. If caught by wildfire on the ground, DO NOT wet or douse your clothing with water! In wildfire conditions, that water will become superheated or flash to steam, burning you severely where dry clothes or dry bare skin would not have burned. Shield yourself from the heat of an approaching fire with a jacket, backpack or even the meager protection of a hat. Point your feet toward the fire. Cover yourself as deeply as you can with dirt, mud, or anything nonflammable that can shield you to even the slightest degree from the sparks and fire. Your biggest risk of injury and death is not from flames, but from superheated air searing your lungs. Every effort should be made to protect your lungs (nose and mouth), and eyes; wrap a water-soaked cloth around your mouth and nose to protect your lungs, and breathe the air closest to the ground.

Remove Synthetic Clothing and Combustibles. Synthetic fabrics are great any other time, but melt at relatively low temperatures, and will stick – burning – to your skin, resulting in severe pain and injury. By contrast, wool offers the best protection against flames and heat, and cotton won’t melt to your skin. As long as you can avoid the fire itself, and if your choices are wearing no clothing or synthetic, keep the clothing on as long as it offers some protection from the heat and sparks. But if conditions grow severe, and the fire line is about to catch you, seriously consider stripping off the synthetics; it is virtually impossible for medical personnel to remove synthetics melted to your body. In ANY case, NEVER cover yourself in a synthetic poncho to create an air pocket, nor use one to protect you from the heat. Remove your backpack (but keep it as a possible heat shield.) Throw camp stove gas canisters, cigarette lighters, and other such combustibles far away from yourself.

If Caught by the Fire, Don’t Panic. People who have been trapped in wildfires describe the roaring sound, intense heat, and difficulty of breathing. At this point, you must fight your natural urge to run away. As the wall of flames passes over you, the entire time you’re in the midst of the wildfire typically ranges from just 30 to 60 seconds. Though it will seem an eternity, try to remind yourself that you’ve chosen the ground on which you have the best possible chance of surviving.

Remember – Danger Remains After the Fire Passes. Even though the flames have past, the danger is not over. Burned trees and snags can fall easily. Debris on the ground can still be white hot, and logs can split — sending embers, sparks, and burning sap into the air. Travel through a recently burned area very carefully.

Notify the Authorities. If you traveled near or became trapped in a wildfire, and hike out afterward, notify authorities immediately. Trailhead registers can be burned and records lost. If you simply go home, people may risk their lives looking for you in the fire area.

Primary Sources
National Forest Service ‘Wildfire Safety’
FEMA ‘What to do During a Wildfire’
National Geographic ‘Wildfire Safety Tips’
National Park Service

Other Resources for Further Reading
‘Coping with Wildfires’ by Willis Lamm Provides background information on how fires travel and how to stay out of harm’s way.
‘Wildfire Education’ Provides a list of links to a range of wildfire safety-related websites.

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