A hiker walks below an orange sky filled with wildfire smoke on the Limeridge Open Space hiking trails in Concord, California on September 9, 2020. Dangerous dry winds whipped up California's record-breaking wildfires and ignited new blazes, as hundreds were evacuated by helicopter. (Brittany Hosea-Small/AFP/Getty Images)
Camping This Fire Season? Here's How to Prepare and Stay Safe
Camping This Fire Season? Here's How to Prepare and Stay Safe
Summertime in California is synonymous with getting outdoors. Campers, hikers and backpackers flock to wilderness areas to disconnect from devices, connect with family and friends, take on new physical challenges, and push beyond mental limits.
For people like Brad Branan from Sacramento, this connection with the outdoors is inseparable from their love for the state.
“I started backpacking 20 years ago in California,” Branan said, “My love of California, the biggest thing is the outdoors.”
But for many, the growing intensity and unpredictability of fires is changing their relationship to California's vast forests and wilderness. Wildfire season, which doesn't typically peak in Northern California until the fall, increasingly overlaps with prime months for camping and backpacking.
Branan, a former Sacramento Bee reporter who currently works as a data analyst for the state, says he now makes backcountry reservations for three different spots at the same time in case wildfires or smokey air make his plans untenable. Sometimes, Branan says, he's “been shut out of all of them.”
Last August, Branan was backpacking in the Ansel Adams Wilderness, south of Yosemite Valley in the Sierra Nevada, when heavy smoke from fire complexes burning across Northern California rolled in. Not wanting to hike through noxious and potentially dangerous smoke, he bailed on the trip two days early, hurrying back to his car.
Roughly a month later, rescue helicopters evacuated hundreds of campers stranded at nearby Mammoth Pool Reservoir at the start of the Creek Fire. The blaze eventually burned more than 350,000 acres, covering the region in ash.
“If I leave California,” Branan said, “it will be because of the wildfire smoke.”
Branan says, for now, he’ll continue to get out to the backcountry, even if the danger for wildfires is high. This summer he’s planned trips to California’s Desolation Wilderness near Lake Tahoe, Yosemite and Lassen National Park.
Park rangers say there are things you can do to make hiking and camping trips safer during the wildfire season — and that preparation should start before you hit the trail.
“In a period of time where we're clearly seeing more dangerous wildfires,” said Scott Elliott, an emergency services chief for California State Parks, “Without getting paranoid about it, be mindful of the scenarios and mindful of escape routes and mindful of proper planning and communication.”
Check Fire Danger Before Your Trip and ‘Become a Weather Nerd’
Elliott says hikers should be aware of where fires are burning and check park websites for advisories and trail closures before leaving for a trip.
"I think anybody who visits a park now, any time anybody goes out camping, really should become a weather nerd," he added.
The old practice of checking the Smokey Bear signs, Elliott says, is no longer sufficient. He suggests people visiting parks keep tabs on heat indexes, wind, and red flag warnings.
Richard Popchak, communications director for the nonprofit Ventana Wilderness Alliance, advises that when conditions are prime for wildfire, campers should consider postponing or relocating to a less risky area.
“We've reached that point where when people see red flag warnings and are aware that it's extreme fire danger, it's not the time to go camping or backpacking," Popchak said.
When planning a big trip, rangers say people should identify a backup destination or plan to recreate closer to home.
Bring an Old Fashioned Paper Map and Have an Escape Route
Many hikers rely on online maps and their cellphones. But paper maps don’t require battery power or reception.
“Always bring a paper map in addition to whatever tech you have, just as a backup.” Elliott said.
If you are using digital maps, it’s a good idea to download them onto your device so you’re not reliant on a signal, as remote areas can have spotty reception. (The signal can be even worse during a wildfire.)
Before heading out on a trail, study your map to identify possible escape routes in case you need to evacuate. Having options is important for times when your intended route is in the path of flames or heavy smoke.
Popchak advises hikers "know which trails go where, even if they're away from your base camp or your vehicle."
Know that during evacuations, park rangers are often dispatched to help people get out and will post signs around with safe evacuation routes.
Consider a GPS Tracker
When heading into the backcountry or other remote areas, consider a GPS tracker, sometimes called an emergency transponder or locator beacon. These satellite devices send out a ping with your location, which rescue crews can use to help find you in an emergency.
On his backpacking trips, Branan carries a locator that’s registered with the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration. GPS transponders are easily found at REI and other outdoor retailers.
“I highly recommend them,” he said. “They’re really easy to use, they last a long time and you don’t have to buy a service for them.”
More For the Packing List
Here are a few other items rangers say hikers and campers should consider for wildfire season.
Plenty of water or a way to filter from streams or lakes.
An emergency blanket (made of thin, heat-reflective material and sometimes called "space blankets" or "heat sheets") in case you have to spend the night somewhere unexpected.
A whistle. The universal distress signal is to whistle three times, pause for a few seconds, then repeat.
A battery-operated or hand crank emergency radio.
What To Do If You Smell Smoke or See Flames
If you see flames, dense smoke, or hear about a fire in your area, Tina Boehle, a former ranger and current National Park Service spokesperson, says to find a safe escape route and get out of the park.
“Don't lollygag,” she said, “This is not the time for further sightseeing. It's time to get on the trail. Get out of there.”
Boehle notes that fire moves faster uphill than downhill, and recommends finding escape routes that move down away from hillsides. “You’ll also have access to more waterways,” she added.
While a fire is spreading, Boehle says less forested areas are generally safer.
“Look for clear meadows,” she said, “And areas where it is clear of any dry vegetation where you could wait out a fire if needed.”
Let Someone Know Where You’re Going and Sign Up For Alerts
Boehle says when heading into the wilderness it’s important to let someone know where you’re going. It’s always a good idea, she says, to check in with a ranger when you arrive at a park. Registering for a permit and checking in helps park officials know where you’ll be in case of an emergency. Rangers can also help you assess the fire danger and identify evacuation routes.
Just like you should register for emergency alerts in your local county, signing up for alerts for the region you’re camping in can help you keep up-to-date with wildfires as you gear up for your trip.
Don’t Be the Cause of a Wildfire
Lightning strikes have ignited some catastrophic wildfires in California, but many fires are caused by humans.
Parks have restrictions on campfires and stoves during periods of high fire danger. Boehle says to also be aware of cigarette embers or chains dragging from your vehicle, which could spark and potentially touch off a grass fire.
“You don't want to be the cause of that fire,” she said. “Be responsible when you recreate in the outdoors and the wilderness, and keep that frame of mind that fires could happen anywhere if the conditions are right.”
For more information on how to prepare for spending time outdoors during wildfire season, Boehle recommends people visit the recreateresponsibly.org website.
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