I'm planning a hiking trip in Canada. As you all possibly know, there re huge forest fires in Canada at the moment. So I was wondering, what are some good safety tips if you go hiking in an area where forest fires are possible. How can you get yourself into safety in this situation and not get yourself surrounded etc.
I’ve never been stuck in a forest fire so I can’t speak from experience.
But I would run! Fires move fastest when pushed by a tailwind, so run in a cross-wind or head-wind direction. I’d keep my eyes peeled for water, then jump in, stay low, and breathe through my shirt to avoid the smoke. Once the fire sweeps through and burns out an area, I’d probably just stay there (since there’s nothing left to burn).
I doubt you could actually out-run a fire in the back country, particularly in Canada, where timber is thick and underbrush impenetrable. The trails in Canada are more regulated than here; they tend to shut trails if a fire is nearby, also if there are grizzly problems. If the conditions are severe, they may not even allow you to start a trip.
If you do more trails that are above timber, there is less chance of getting caught in a fire. Where are you going? What trails?
Loc: Washington State, King County
Practically speaking, I think the most effective thing to be done is before the trip starts --- assessing any current fires anywhere near your trail and being aware of current estimates of movement, containment % current and future anticipated, how unexpected weather patterns might impact those.
It's certainly possible that a new fire will start while you're out there, and I've had that happen, but a lot less likely to be an issue. In that does happen and you're seeing or smelling any significant amount of smoke, you talk to anyone you meet on trail and see what they know. Very much depending on the particular trail and time of year, that could help a lot or not at all. It's tricky, as smoke can move around, so you might not know if it's best to turn around. And other factors come in to play, like how much food you're currently carrying relative to where you are.
If you have any concerns, take advantage of the few places the trail climbs relatively high --- high passes typically --- to look in the direction of concern.
If you're getting close to an active fire, another clue is when you see fire fighting helicopters and planes flying, and perhaps even crews on the ground. Chances are that before you see crews on the ground you'll have come across a sign on a trailhead telling you that the trail is closed to hikers --- I've seen a number of those (always a PITA if the fire covers a small part of the overall trail you're trying to walk).
I suppose that if you had to hike somewhere close to where you know fires are burning, a satellite phone or 2-way SPOT or similar could be use, but practically speaking, sometimes the folks back home that you're communicating with don't know what's going on either. And again, the one thing you can definitely do to improve your odds is to hike somewhere else entirely if a big burn is going on nearby; in most cases, you can go back to hike the trail you wanted some other year.
If you do that, I think that the odds of a fire-related problem are quite low.
This topic is like bears and some other trail-danger things where it's easy to go overboard in either direction. You don't want to be casual about fire danger (!), but experience makes a big difference in putting things into perspective. I've been given permission by fire crews to walk on trail where stumps are still smoldering and minor fires are still burning --- really. And on the flip side, I've had to road walk around fire closed trails that have been closed for a couple of years, are perfectly safe and rebuilt, but are just waiting for some government agency to do final inspection.
Smelling smoke doesn't necessarily mean that you're in danger, as it can carry quite a bit. Definitely smelling charcoal type smell isn't an issue; you can smell that years after a fire as you walk through.
I don't mean to suggest that I'm an expert on this topic or that it's easy --- far, far from it. Except --- it is easy to look round for current fires and reschedule your trip or hike somewhere else. If I come across as repetitive on this point, it's intentional.
Loc: Portland, OR
This is quite a big question that covers a lot of ground.
The most obvious piece of good advice is, if a fire is burning in an area, stay away from it! Distance and more distance is the safest option. But that option is not always immediately available if the fire started near you after you are on the trail, so probably the best way to get started is to describe a few factors that affect fires and how they behave.
Forest fires move more rapidly uphill and more slowly downhill. They spread more rapidly the stronger the wind is blowing. They spread more rapidly in low humidity than high humidity.
Fire behavior depends a lot on the available fuel, how dry it is, how dense it is, whether it is low to the ground like grass and brush or high up like the crowns of trees. Generally speaking, fires move faster with low dense dry fuel. Grass fires can move miles in a day, while forest fires are usually slower moving, especially to begin with.
Bigger fires can 'jump' ahead of their front edges by sending burning material aloft which lands some distance away from the main fire. Low fires have trouble moving across watercourses, where fuel is wetter and the water creates a fuel discontinuity.
If you suddenly discover there is a fire in your near vicinity, your most important survival tool will be your brain and making good decisions, so staying calm and thinking clearly is extremely important. This will be more difficult if it is night time, but keep calm and collect information with your entire mind at work. Your basic task will be to get a safe distance between you and the fire.
Try to figure out what kind of fire you are facing, how close is the leading edge, which direction it is likely to be moving (test the wind), how fast it might move (think about fuel load, wind speed, humidity, terrain) and look at your map to see what bail out routes you have. Trails and roads are much easier and faster to follow than a x-country route! Incidentally, roads make good fire breaks.
Depending on what you decide you are facing, decide what direction you will travel, how fast you think you'll need to go, and how far. Don't panic, but don't waste time.
This info is just a few basic tips and hints. Fire fighters could tell you stories all day long to illustrate these brief hints and clues, and much, much more.
Later additions: Brian Le is correct that smelling smoke is not a good indicator of proximity. I have stood on top of a mountain and smelled smoke from an enormous fire that was burning almost 400 km away! Seeing a pillar of smoke is a much more useful indicator of location. If you see or hear flames, the fire is exceedingly close and I'd recommend moving very briskly!
Brian is also correct that having a fire start right near you is a rare occurrence. It has happened to me, but I hiked for 50 years before the first time it happened.
Edited by aimless (05/08/1603:47 PM) Edit Reason: Added more thoughts