Wildfire disaster has been a fact of nature for centuries. Wildfires historically were a natural phenomenon occurrence caused mostly by a rare occurrence, such as a volcanic eruption or an earthquake or a lightning strike, the main cause.

But today, natural causes are much less frequent and the most frequent causes of wildfires are human activities, both voluntary and intentional. In fact, 80-90% of wildfires in the U.S. are started by people.

Wildfires: a force of nature…

Wildfires are one of the great forces of nature. Its potential danger is often underestimated. Don’t. As recent events have demonstrated, underestimating the power and danger can be dangerous and even fatal. You’re on your own out there. Be prepared.

There are tens of thousands of wildfires every year, and because of droughts and changing climate, the number, size, and intensity of wildfires continues to grow.

Wildfires can grow extremely quickly. When you see a wildfire, you must react quickly. Assess the situation:

  • How windy is it? Wildfires can grow and move extremely quickly – especially under windy conditions.
  • What is your location? If you’re on a ridge or in a forested area, be extra cautious. (Note: Fire typically moves faster uphill than it does downhill. If possible, you want to avoid being at the summit of a ridge with a wildfire raging below.)

Fires move faster than you can run. Some wildfires move with the speed of a freight train. You won’t be able to outrun it. But you must get away as quickly as you can.

How to find shelter from a wildfire…

  • Find a place with less fuel for the fire, such as a place with less or smaller vegetation; fewer trees and scrubs.
  • Other possible areas to take refuge include:
    • meadow
    • field of flat rocks
    • volcanic rock flats
    • rivers
    • creeks
    • green grass
    • lakes
    • swampy areas
    • green grass
  • Stay as low to the ground as possible. Smoke is toxic and rises. The air will be better down low.
  • Pay attention to closures and detours. There are detailed planning and science behind them, taking into account the current fire, terrain, conditions, the projected growth of the fire, the resources available, the evacuation routes and other things. Let firefighters work without needing to divert resources toward tracking you down.
  • Trust your gut. You might be aware of fire before firefighters learn about it. Don’t panic… play it safe.

Wildfire preparation before you go…

Being well prepared is always important – even more so in rainy seasons and during droughts. That’s when wildfires are more likely to occur quickly. It’s also more important when you’re in more remote stretches of wilderness. Other factors to consider in advance:

  • Is there a campfire ban?
  • Are there restrictions about smoking? 
  • Are there other red flags, such a or weather warnings?
  • What’s the threat level for the area?
  • Does the area have any permanent fire restrictions in effect?

Additionally, never venture into the wilderness without the right survival gear and safety equipment Survival tools and kits, water, camping and backpacking food, headlamps or flashlights, compasses, first aid kits and emergency radios. The list goes on. 

Lastly, one often overlooked piece of survival gear is paper maps. You should never venture into the wilderness without them. This is fundamental. Maps tell you the drainage, where the trail will lead you. For example, will it the curve toward the fire? Is the fire likely to head upslope toward or away from the trail? Are there alternate trails?

Reporting a wildfire…

Call 911 if appropriate. Provide as much information as you can. In less severe situations, you can also call the local county sheriff or the local Forest Service or National Park Service office. Give as much information as possible, such as:

  • Location: GPS coordinates. mile marker. name of the National Forest, ridge, drainage nearest you, closest intersection.
  • Size: Size of a house? Size of a football field?
  • Rate of spread: How quickly is the fire spreading?
  • Fuel: What is burning? Grass, bushes, trees?
  • Smoke/flames: What color is the smoke? Are flames visible?
  • Threat: Are there any people or buildings at risk?
  • Campfires: Is wood burning or is it a propane campfire?

Don’t underestimate the potential of wildfire danger…

In conclusion, wildfires are one of the great forces of nature. Its potential danger is often underestimated. Don’t. As recent events have demonstrated, underestimating the power and danger can be dangerous and even fatal.

You might find yourself on your own out there. Be prepared.

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