Emergency Situation: While hiking through Kings Canyon National Park in California, you notice the ground crunching audibly underfoot — the result of the state’s severe drought. As you travel up a small rise in the terrain, you begin to smell smoke and hear a loud rushing sound. Then you see it: a line of flame racing through the bone-dry brush not far ahead of you. Suddenly the wind picks up. Embers float your way, and … goodness, gracious, great balls of fire!
What should you do?
Solution: Let’s back up a minute. Part of your pre-hike planning should include assessing risks in the area. Check with local park rangers to learn more about conditions before heading into the wild. Smokey Bear is all about prevention, which is great, but what about surviving forest fires?
Forest fire survival strategies are complex and will differ based on any number of factors: the severity of the fire; your location and proximity to the fire and to roads or other potential escape routes; weather; and the terrain.
In general, forest fires are driven by two factors: wind and terrain. In both cases, it is critical to move upwind (that is, into the wind) when attempting to escape wildfires. You can determine general wind direction by viewing which way the smoke is moving, assuming there’s reasonable visibility. Look high up in the sky, where the smoke direction is less affected by the terrain. You should also travel downhill. This is because the hot air masses created by the fire tend to move up, making higher elevations more prone to ignition.
Once you’ve determined your direction of travel, search for a natural firebreak: an area without combustible material. This may be a road or a clear-cut area of woods, or it may be a boulder field or body of water.
In general, large trees retain more moisture than, say, dry fields, so if you must seek protection in an area without a firebreak, avoid open areas and ones with small, dry scrub brush. Such areas are extremely dangerous during a forest fire. Flames also tend to travel uphill, and running uphill will slow you down anyway.
Can you — or should you even attempt to — outrun a forest fire? Again, wildfires are unpredictable. Researchers have been perplexed by recent California fires with flames that have spread at incredible speed, mostly due to unprecedented levels of drought. The short answer is that a wall of flame can move at 20 mph or faster and easily overtake a runner. Plus, embers might travel in unpredictable directions via updrafts or so-called “chimneys,” igniting new flare-ups ahead of you as you try to outrun the fire. If you must run, try to make it through the leading edge of the fire into an area that has already burned.
In a situation where you cannot escape the flames and cannot make it to a safe location, your best option is to locate a trench or deep gulley. Dig a hole in the side, cover the opening with a tarp or blanket, and then crawl into the hole. Alternatively, dig a trench and lie down in it with your feet facing the direction of the flames, and cover yourself with dirt. Make sure you can breathe, and wait for the fire to travel over you.
Safe Campfire Tips
According to the U.S. Forest Service, people cause nine out of 10 wildfires. Unattended campfires are one of the common causes of wildfires. Other causes include fireworks, sparks from equipment or vehicles, burning leaves or debris or even cigarettes tossed from cars.
In addition to following Leave No Trace guidelines, use these tips to help prevent wildfires when burning a campfire:
- Do not build a campfire at a site with dry conditions. Check with the local park ranger to see if there is a burn ban.
- If there is no burn ban, use the designated fire ring or fire pit for your campfire.
- If there is no designated campfire spot, look for a site away from tents, trees or scrub.
- Keep your campfire small and under control. Never leave your campfire unattended.
- Allow the fire to burn completely to ash. Then, to fully extinguish the campfire, pour lots of water and drown all embers. Stir the ashes with a shovel and pour more water atop the ash until all hissing sounds stop. Make sure everything is cold to the touch.
Visit smokeybear.com for more campfire safety tips and to take a pledge to prevent wildfires.
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