How To Stay Safe From Wildfires

Photo: Jerry Dodrill/TandemStock

If you’re enjoying the outdoors, it pays to prepare, pack and make the right choices when exploring at-risk areas.

Wildfire outbreaks were once confined to the hot, dry summer months. But that’s no longer the case. As climate change fuels increasingly extreme weather across the planet, we’ve learned that in recent years, there’s no such thing as a consistent North American wildfire season anymore. These days, it’s always fire season. And for many U.S. residents, the wildfires that have started to pop up more frequently in their local outdoor recreation areas are making one contingency clear: It’s quite possible to encounter a wildland fire when you’re out running, hiking, or camping (especially when 84% of wildfires are started by humans, who are inherently unpredictable). So, how can you stay safe while enjoying the outdoors? Here are the top tips for how to prepare, pack, make decisions, and evacuate if need be. 


1) Consult Online Resources

Before you head out for a trip, or even a long day in the backcountry, you need to check the weather forecast. Pull one from the National Weather Service and get an idea of air temperatures, wind speeds, and risk of thunderstorms: all of which can increase the risk of wildfire. Then check the Fire Potential Outlook, which gauges how likely fires are up to four months out. Plus, take a look at InciWeb, where you’ll see the wildland fires that are currently burning, how big they are, and how contained they are. If, after checking those resources, you feel good about your trip, make sure to tell a trusted person where you’re going and when you’ll be back. And don’t forget to check for local burn bans and campfire regulations, either; you don’t want to be responsible for starting a wildfire yourself. 


2) Pack Smart 

While it’s always important to bring safety gear on any outdoor adventure, there are a few items that are especially important when it comes to wildfires. First, you’ll want some type of personal locator beacon or two-way messaging device that works without a cell signal. This can be a critical tool for letting rescuers know your location, or for gathering current information from someone who has access to a phone or computer. Second, throw an N95 mask in your pack. As we’ve learned, these masks are good at blocking outside particulates, and helping to protect your lungs from smoke. Third, it’s not a bad idea to wear hiking boots with thick soles that can withstand hot terrain without melting (like the ones wildland firefighters wear). Lastly, make sure you have good maps of the area so you can navigate if you need to veer off of your planned course.

3) Learn How To Recognize Smoke 

Smoke can be visible from fires that are burning hundreds of miles away but pose no threat. So, while the sight of smoke is not an immediate cause for concern, you shouldn’t ignore it. Wildland firefighters read the smoke by looking at volume, velocity, density, and color. A large column indicates a large fire (and is a good sign to evacuate). The direction that the smoke column is leaning lets you know which way the wind is currently blowing, and therefore which way the fire is currently moving. White smoke, for example, could be a fire that is in the early stages of burning or one that’s consuming primarily fast-burning fuels like grass. Dark smoke is typically indicative of more dense fuels, like trees or brush. 


4) Assess When To Evacuate

If you see a smoke column growing, then you know that a significant wildfire is also building and it’s a smart idea to vacate the area immediately (especially if the wind is at your face and the column is bending toward you). And if you see flames, head quickly in the opposite direction. If the smoke in the air is uncomfortable for you to breathe, or if it takes on an orange/red color (signaling especially unhealthy air quality), it’s best to head home. (Put on that N95 mask if you have one.) If you have cell service and are on the fence about leaving due to just smoke in the air, check the air quality index (AQI). An AQI that’s over 150 is considered unhealthy for the average person. 


5) How To Evacuate

So, you see signs that make it clear it’s time to evacuate. Now what? First, you’ll want to head in the opposite direction of the wildfire, if possible. Maybe that’s not the route you were planning or are familiar with, but if you came prepared with maps and know-how, you can safely find a new way out. If the fire is so close that you can’t outrun it, seek out an area with as little vegetation as possible (a pond or shallow lake or a large rock slab). Remember, fires move faster uphill than they do downhill. Often it can be safest to travel over an area that has already been burned (no fuel there to feed the fire, and likely meaning it’s already passed). That said, these areas can be unsafe themselves due to unstable trees and hazards like smoldering embers—this is where those thick-soled boots can come in handy. 

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.