in Camping / by Adam Prell

Every year millions of Americans flock to our Nation’s plethora of parks and open spaces. During the pandemic the interest in camping and outdoor adventure is as high as it’s ever been. Of course, those same forests, parks, and open spaces are also where most large wildfires burn. 

National Statistics show that even though the annual number of ignitions are down, fires are actually growing bigger, lasting longer, and affecting more and more public lands over the last few decades. The vast majority of these situations happen on Federal lands across the western states. Therefore, every year campers and adventurers who flock to these areas are affected or even endangered by wildfires. The following are some tips from a wildfire expert and fellow camping extraordinaire. 

Five things to think about for camping in wildfire-prone areas

1. Pay attention to fire weather

Many parks and campgrounds post fire danger signs and update them based on weather conditions, drought, and time of year. Furthermore, the national weather service issues Fire Weather Watches and Red Flag Warnings when conditions are particularly favorable for fires to ignite and grow uncontrollably.

Fire danger signs are posted around many public spaces where wildfires are a danger.

2. Humans cause most fires 

90% of wildfire ignitions are caused by humans. When camping, it is imperative that you follow the rules for building campfires in campgrounds or the backcountry. Campfire and burn restrictions are in place for a reason. Not only that, you could be on the hook financially or criminally for a wildfire that you start. 

3. Active wildfires may align with your trip

Every year campers deal with active fires affecting their trips. Campers may reserve sites months in advance, prepare for their trip, and have the unfortunate timing of having an active wildfire in the area of their destination. If this is the case, Public Information is available for most large wildfires. One major role firefighters have is keeping the public in the loop on the fire situation. If that fire grows in the wrong direction or a new one breaks out, campgrounds are often the first places evacuated. Be on the lookout for text message warnings or first responders spreading the word, and listen to them. 

The presence of smoke may adversely affect your experience both by polluting the air you breath, and clouding the views around you. Keep an eye out for air quality advisories, as breathing in smoke particulates causes damage to the lungs. Try to be smart and flexible with your activities and plans if you find yourself camping near a wildfire. 

4. Know some basic wildfire behavior

A basic understanding of wildfire behavior can help keep you safe when one ignites in your area. Typically, fires burn slowly in all directions, but gain speed and force when moving uphill with terrain and downwind. Keep those things in mind when orienting yourself in relation to a fire that may break out. Do not hike towards the direction of a spreading fire. Whether to take refuge in a safe area or hike back to your car, it is important to stay calm and make a safe plan for escaping danger. Try to avoid areas where fires are most dangerous: in the middle of a slope,  a drainage, or downwind. If it is safe to do so, try to get eyes on the fire to help you make an informed decision. 

5. Escape Routes and Safety Zones

In firefighting protocol, one of the standard orders for working in a wildfire area ishaving escape routes and safety zones planned out in advance. Knowing this, I find myself internally identifying safety zones and the routes to them while I am hiking or camping in wildfire areas. Finding your way to a large area with little to no vegetation could save your life. It could also help you be identified as in danger by firefighting aircraft or search and rescue efforts in charge of ensuring public safety. In addition to identifying safe areas, I suggest you know your hike, have a map, and know how to read it. 

In summary, planning ahead by paying attention to fire danger status, gaining a basic level of knowledge for wildfire behavior, and identifying escape routes and safety zones when in the backcountry can help keep you safe and ready for any potential fire outbreak. Gaining awareness and education will only enhance your experience of the outdoors, as it contributes to making better, more-informed decisions through every step of the process.

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