Forest fire safety?

Posted by: Gershon

Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 09:57 AM

I'm not an expert on the answer which is why I'm asking, but I've been studying the topic the last few days as we have a big fire in Colorado now.

I've set the following guidelines for myself.

1. I won't go within 50 miles of a known fire. The second day often spreads breathtakingly fast and there is little information.

2. I won't hike or backpack into any dead end trails that don't have an alternate way out or a safe area. I define a safe area as a mountain lake above the treeline.

3. If I can see the plume of smoke, I'll start making my way to safety even if I have to hike further than I planned that day.

4. If I can see or smell smoke even from a large distant fire, I'll only hike in a few miles for an overnight trip. This comes from my experience with the Hayman fire which was 100 miles or so away. Breathing was uncomfortable when conditions were just right.

Thoughts?
Posted by: lori

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 10:16 AM

I remember hiking through a fire when I was 13, on my first trip with my family. It wasn't a very active one, obviously. We had no idea there was a fire in the area and came upon it as we were heading back to the trailhead on a different route than we went in. It was probably a small lightning fire they were allowing to burn out on its own.

When I did the Grand Canyon of the Tuolumne, the park was letting a fire burn on the steep side of the canyon above Hetch Hetchy. I sat on the ridge and watched the chopper circling and dropping retardant to contain it. They'd closed part of the trail system, but what were we going to do, not hike out to the car? The fire crews were camping in the backpacker camp at White Wolf. The afternoon upslope breeze choked the canyon with smoke, but settled down by dusk, and so things were clear in the morning while we did the majority of the hiking.

Right now there is a huge fire burning in the southern Sierra, so the whole range is hazy. I'm going backpacking again this weekend, nowhere near the fire, but expecting views to be poor.
Posted by: wandering_daisy

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 12:42 PM

I agree with much of what you say, however, there often is smoke in the air in the Sierra due to fires, both prescribed burns and wildfires that are left to burn out naturally. The FS here is pretty good about closing aras that actually are dangerous. If I were not to go out when there is smoke, I would rarely go hiking! If I choose not to hike when there is smoke, it is more that I do not like breathing it, and the views are compromised so taking photos is useless. I do not stay away due to safety reasons. The 50-mile limit you use is a bit more than I would use. And as far as seeing a plume of smoke - there are some areas in Wyoming that you can see 100 miles so it depends on how close that plume is. All in all, forest fires are something we need to be aware of and plan accordingly.
Posted by: Rick_D

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 12:57 PM

I can find two California fires this morning: the "George" in Sequoia that's a couple thousand acres and 90% contained and the "Gaines" in Mariposa that's under a thousand acres and 50% contained. [Edit: per CalFire Gaines is now "1,667 acres - 75% containment".]

I think we dodged a bullet with the very high winds last weekend that we don't have a lot more, much larger fires. We won't skate through the summer like the last couple years, however, given the skimpy snowpack. Still hoping we don't experience what's hitting New Mexico and Colorado.

A few years ago we were in NW Yosemite-SW Emigrant for a weeklong trip and a few days in got heavy smoke then ashfall. We couldn't figure out where it was coming from, nor how far away, but felt very vulnerable so after a nervous night we bugged out a day early. Then it took several extra hours to drive out of the mountains because we were re-routed through endless Forest Service roads in the dark to keep us away from the fire and the many crews. It was a very eery, surreal night.

Tragically, the fire overran a crew and a woman was killed during the fight.
Posted by: aimless

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 02:04 PM

Fires behave differently in different terrains and with different availability of fuel.

Range fires that feed mainly on dry grass and low bushes can move with tremendous speed when they are being pushed by winds. The native americans knew this and understood that you can't outrun such a fire. Their tactic was to set another fire and then enter the burned-out area created by their blaze, so, when the bigger fire arrived they were in an 'island' without any fuel. I understand fire crews also use this tactic when it's necessary.

Fires in forests with steep up-and-down terrain tend to move more slowly on the down slope and more quickly on the up slope. They never move as fast as a range fire, unless the fire is "crowning", i.e. moving directly from treetop to treetop.

A "crown" fire moves fast and often creates its own fire storm, with locally fierce winds that drive the fire past all obstacles and send hot cinders high into the air for miles around, starting new blazes. These are considered the most dangerous fires of all.

But I'm not an expert by any stretch. I'm sure this information is out there on the web in much greater detail and from people with more knowledge and experience than I have. blush
Posted by: balzaccom

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 05:29 PM

Exactly. And in an area like the Emigrant Wilderness, where there is so much granite, I will have a very different approach that in heavily wooded terrain.
Posted by: Rick_D

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 06:34 PM

I'll add that on the trip I referenced, we were hammocking so necessarily sleeping in stands of timber that were late-season dry. Given all the ash sifting down on us, it made for some fitful sleep.

Getting home once you hit the parking lot is a whole other issue.

Cheers,

Originally Posted By balzaccom
Exactly. And in an area like the Emigrant Wilderness, where there is so much granite, I will have a very different approach that in heavily wooded terrain.
Posted by: SC Forester

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 08:33 PM

Wildland firefighting is part of my job duties but I do not claim to be a fire science expert.
1. Fire behavior is driven by weather, fuels and topography. The weather and fuels can change day to day and affect the rate of speed and intensity. They can ďspotĒ miles ahead of the main fire. If there is a large fire in the region than the conditions are right for more severe fires and truth be told there is always very little information known about what the fire is doing and what is known is a couple days old. I would not hike in that region if there were very active fires.
2. See #1
3. See#1
4. Smoke can travel hundreds of miles so that might now be a good indicator. If you can see smoke itís past time to get out not go into the backcountry.
Posted by: oldranger

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/13/12 11:45 PM

Time for a war story - throw another og on the -uh, fire (so to speak).

years ago, two fo us were camped on West Anacapa Island doing a project. A huge fire was raging near Ojai, which is orughly fifteen miles inland. We could look up the Ventura River valley and see pine trees crown out. Anacapa Island is roughly 15 miles offshore. As the ash from that fire settled onto our campsite, i thought that a firebreak fifteen miles wide was just about right. At least the ash was cool by the time it reached the island.

Also had a similar experience while on Santa Rosa Island. Enough ash was falling on our south shore camp that we were concerned about a possible fire on the island, causing us to drive to a high point to scout things out. It was just another burn in the Santa Barbara backcountry.

I am no expert on fire behavior, but i know enough to recommend extreme caution when fire danger is high. When conditions are right, a fire can easily travel faster than anyone on foot, or even in a vehicle. Steep terrain, and the so-called "chimney effect" makes them more dangerous, even to trained crews equipped with fire shelters.

I guess I can say that if the mainland is burning, go for a trip on the Channel Islands.....
Posted by: Gershon

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/20/12 08:04 AM

Originally Posted By Gershon
I'm not an expert on the answer which is why I'm asking, but I've been studying the topic the last few days as we have a big fire in Colorado now.

I've set the following guidelines for myself.

1. I won't go within 50 miles of a known fire. The second day often spreads breathtakingly fast and there is little information.

2. I won't hike or backpack into any dead end trails that don't have an alternate way out or a safe area. I define a safe area as a mountain lake above the treeline.

3. If I can see the plume of smoke, I'll start making my way to safety even if I have to hike further than I planned that day.

4. If I can see or smell smoke even from a large distant fire, I'll only hike in a few miles for an overnight trip. This comes from my experience with the Hayman fire which was 100 miles or so away. Breathing was uncomfortable when conditions were just right.

Thoughts?


I've been watching the growth of the Springer and High Park fires in Colorado. The scary escape stories come mostly from people who seemingly waited too long. A few come from those who were near the starting point. I've refined the criteria a little. They are meant to be very conservative as I know little about forest fires.

I haven't found any instances of fires spreading long distances in the first 24 hours. This gives a long window of opportunity to escape, but only if one takes it. On the second day, the furthest I've read of a forest fire spreading is 19 miles. This was under optimum conditions.

I've read that if a fire is making a defined column of smoke, it is burning especially hot. It's hard to gauge the distance of a column of smoke as terrain often hides things. If it's in the same drainage or one over, it's a serious situation. I've seen videos of fires also spreading rapidly downhill.

The other night, we got brown clouds of smoke from the Springer fire. It was just turning dark when I saw them. It's about 80 miles away so there is no danger here. My point is I couldn't tell if the source was 10 miles away or further.

Before going out, I've learned a call to the Forest Service is always a good idea. Not just for fires, but for other hazards. This year some trails were not recommended due to a very large number of blowdown's along the trail.

I put forest fires in the same risk category as a bear coming into the camp. It's not something I worry a lot about. Having a plan before it happens makes everything a lot less stressful.
Posted by: SC Forester

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/20/12 06:50 PM

Itís always good to have a plan and calling the local ranger station is always a good idea. As a wildland firefighter I would not go into the back country in the same region, as a major fire, until the wildfire risk went back down to medium or low. Itís not worth the risk. While I was In Texas last year a grass fire ignited near my engine from an ember from the BearCreek fire. The BearCreek fire was more than ten miles away. Point being wildfires are unpredictable. If you are contemplating the risk itís time to go somewhere else.
Posted by: Gershon

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/24/12 12:24 PM

Unfortunately, I got to test my limits today on forest fires. The Waldo Canyon fire near Manitou Springs, CO is about 50 miles from us in a straight line. There isn't any danger in Pueblo, but we are getting some smoke.

Information is delayed, but it appears like it grew to a few hundred acres in the first 8 hours. Overnight, it officially grew 2 1/2 miles, but from what I see on the TV station it has grown maybe double that.

The problem is, I can see from my deck the smoke is pretty heavy over the area we were going to go hiking. I decided to paint my bathroom instead.

There is currently a live feed of the fire here: http://www.kktv.com/video/live
Posted by: billstephenson

Re: Forest fire safety? - 06/26/12 03:48 PM

Scary stuff. I've been close to several big So Cal fires. It's amazing how big the embers can be that are falling from fires a few miles away. I've seen ash drift a couple feet high in the San Fernando Valley and the light of day turn a dark orange. I can still imagine the smell and taste of the ash and smoke.

Stay safe...