Guide to Wildfire Season - Big Fall Creek Road, Lowell, United States

The Adventurer’s Guide to Wildfire Season

Climbing Cycling Hiking Mountain Culture® Running Travel
July 15, 2019

Where I live in Western Montana, we have hunting season, snowmobiling season, mud season, and fire season. When the weather heats up at the end of June, locals regard city-dwelling tourists and outdoor sports enthusiasts with a great deal of suspicion. Are you going to do something stupid and burn us all to hell?

I’m wary of those city-slicker “tourons,” too; I was one myself before I decided to move here. I know now what I didn’t know then, so I know they probably don’t know some seriously important stuff. If you’re going to live and play here in the wooded West, you have to be fire wise.

Things aren’t going to get any less toasty on this planet, and I’m betting—if you’re a KÜHL person—you’re willing to manage the risks rather than give up your summer plans. Here’s how you can stay informed, equipped, and safe during fire season, whether you’re headed to the backcountry or town-hopping by road.

Understand the official USFS fire restriction system

You’ve seen those signs: Smokey Bear, holding a cute, multi-colored graph indicating fire danger levels. Those signs are great for raising awareness, but they do nothing to inform National Forest visitors when official fire restrictions limit access and activities.

Download the USFS guide to the Stage I to Stage IV fire restriction classification system and keep one copy in your glove box and another in your pack. Backcountry camping? You don’t want to rely on a wood-burning pack stove if conditions bump up to Stage I. At Stage II, motor vehicle use (and parking) is limited to established forest and county roads only, as hot undercarriages easily ignite dry vegetation. There is no “Stage Zero,” which would pretty much list all the common-sense “don’ts” related to outdoor activities under low-risk conditions: Drown and stir your camp fires, don’t ignite paper bags of trail poo in front of your buddy’s tent… that kind of stuff.


Our Federal agencies are notoriously awful at communicating with one another, and there are a gazillion government organizations with similar names and purposes. One entity, the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) pulled quite a coup with the Incident Information System (InciWeb). Finally, we have a single reliable source of current fire information. InciWeb channels all the latest active fire data from multiple State and Federal agencies through a single, interactive web portal so you (or other safety officials) don’t have to hunt it down.

Quick Facts: According to the National Interagency Fire Center, (NIFC), “In 2017, more than 47,500 fires burned nearly 2.6 million acres in the East (of the Continental Divide), compared with nearly 24,000 wildfires that burned more than 7.4 million acres in the West.” That same report indicates that wildfire devastation has steadily increased over the past decade, as have fatalities.

InciWeb was an enormously cumbersome site until its redesign in early 2018, just in time for one of the West’s worst fire seasons ever. NWGC hasn’t yet released an app, but adding a bookmark to your phone’s home screen works just fine. You can save a page to a state or a particular fire for easy reference.

I love the new site and its search features. No longer do I have to drive to town to check the map pinned to a giant sandwich board, or depend on local Facebook groups for the latest updates:

“Bennie Lou? Can you see the smoke out your back window yet?” (25 likes, 2 shares)

Bennie Lou: “No, but Mary Jones told me she had a cougar and a mess of bighorns come drink out of her pond, so the fire’s not far behind.” (32 likes, 15 shares, one “pictures or it didn’t happen”)

Jessie Birch: “You all know those tanker planes are dropping poison so we all get sick and move to the big cities, right? The government set this fire!” (6 likes, 2 shares)

I’m dead serious. That’s how we roll out here, so it’s nice to have options.

Guide to Wildfire Season - A mountainside with wildfire smoke in the distance.

Photo by Dominik Lange. Location: Kings Canyon National Park, United States.

Have an evacuation plan

If you’re planning a road trip through fire country this summer or fall, pack analog road maps showing secondary roads. Be aware of points-of-no-return and major crossroads along your chosen route. Where I live, small 300 to 800-acre fires on the road way to the nearest Starbucks burn for months. I stop at these checkpoints to decide if the route will be too smoky or, given wind conditions, too unpredictable. You can’t count on roadside turnouts or wide shoulders if you have to make a hasty retreat.

Avoid any routes that are one-way in and one-way out, or long stretches of two-lane highway that have no outlets to safety. After watching footage of the horrible Camp Fire in Paradise, California where residents got stuck amid stalled or abandoned cars, I realized just how vulnerable my neighbors and I are. Our homes back up to a large tract of privately-owned, unmanaged forest, and that backs up to dense State Forest for miles.

To get to town (or the general store, bait shop, and gas station) it’s a two-mile bumpy drive in between woodlots and neglected hay fields. The main highway itself? It travels along the Clark Fork River, often between sheer walls on one side, and steep drops on the other. Lots of bottlenecks, and few places to safely maneuver around stalled vehicles.

swimming (or kayaking) to safety isn’t a realistic option when you have pets, small kids, or mobility issues, though I’d probably throw my boat on the roof rack, just in case.

If you encounter a fire while out on the trails:

Hopefully you studied your topo maps well enough to plan out pathways of retreat well before you left the trail head. Familiarity with the terrain—if only theoretical—will save your butt if you encounter a fire. But even if you walk in cold, these tips can help you walk out alive:

  • Fire travels uphill, so you should head down.
  • When possible, stay upwind of the fire.
  • Head around the back of a fire, traveling through burned (black) zones as soon as they’re cool enough to walk through.
  • Stay close to established roads whenever you can, or follow watersheds.
  • Avoid brushy creek beds and heat-trapping arroyos.
  • Watch for spot-fires caused by embers.

If you’re trapped with nowhere to go:

Any non-combustible shelter is better than being caught in the open, but you can still “dig in” and hope for the best:

  • Lie prone in a ditch or dug-out impression away from combustible materials.
  • Dig a hole for your face to keep it cool and give yourself an air pocket.
  • Point your feet toward the fire, toes out, and keep your body as close to the ground as possible.

Once the flames have passed, wait as long as you can. Then, take a breath and look around before getting up and leaving the area. Congratulations, you’ve just cheated death.

If you’re caught on the road and a wildfire’s headed your way:

Australians are champs at surviving raging brush fires. Here’s what the New South Wales Rural Fire Service recommends:

  • Park off the road in a clear area away from trees, scrub and tall grass.
  • Face the front of your car towards the fire.
  • Stay in the car below the windows to protect yourself from radiant heat.
  • Turn off the engine and turn on headlights and hazard lights.
  • Close windows and air vents.
  • Cover yourself with a woolen blanket.
  • Drink plenty of water.
  • Cover your mouth with a damp cloth.
  • Stay down until the sound of the fire has passed, then carefully leave the car (it will be hot).

I’ll chime in to add this: Check for severed power lines and burned, unstable trees and utility poles as you leave your car, and don’t let your kids or pets walk on hot asphalt or ash.

Guide to Wildfire Season - mountain peak on fire, moon rising in the distance.

Photo by Luke Flynt. Location: Eagle Creek Trailhead, Cascade Locks, United States.

Bring the right gear

Let’s start out with the items you should always have on hand: Your first aid kit, layered means of obtaining drinking water, a headlamp (and extra batteries), and anything else recommended in “Put Some Gray Matter in Your Backcountry Emergency Kit. And then, these:

N95 or N100 disposable respirators

Ordinary surgical and dust masks are all but useless in a smoky environment. Download this EPA fact sheet and pick up a couple cartons of high quality N95 or N100 disposable masks. They’re about $1.50 each when purchased in cases of 10, and I get mine at ULINE. There’s always a case in my car emergency kit, and I stash one or two in my backpack.

But not everyone can benefit from using them, and some people might even be worse off. N95/N100 masks don’t properly fit kids or small adults, allowing particulates to “leak” through the gaps. If the wearer has pre-existing heart or lung problems, they can’t exhale with enough force to clear out carbon dioxide, or properly draw in polluted air in through the filter material.

Fire-resistant natural fibers

For all the same reasons cotton clothing isn’t trail-friendly, it’s nearly ideal attire for fleeing a fire. Synthetic fibers melt, burning and bonding to the skin. (Remember that time you set that sap-encrusted log on a campfire? So long, favorite fleece sweater!) Natural fibers like wool, cotton, and hemp retain moisture and don’t ignite nearly as easily when they come into contact with falling embers. Plus, in a pinch, a wet cotton shirt or bandanna can temporarily serve as a respirator, both cooling and filtering hot, particulate-filled air.

By all means, pack your synthetic blend performance outdoor clothing, but bring some long-sleeved hemp, cotton or Merino wool tops, and comfortable, lightweight, full-length pants. Listen to the Aussies and pack a wool blanket,

Thick-soled, sturdy footwear

Water and river sandal designs have evolved to a point at which they’re sturdy enough for short day hikes, but they leave your feet exposed when the ground’s covered in smoldering debris. If you’re forced to evacuate through a newly-burned area, you’ll want hefty soles and a thick, durable upper. Don’t forget those wool socks!

Stay safe and informed… and stay chill during fire season.

I admit, I wonder when it will be “our year.” We’ve had plenty of close calls in our little town, and too many occasions to host firefighter base camps. But it’s easier to stay current on vital information than it was only a couple years ago, and the folks who spent their whole lives hunting, logging, fishing, camping, and battling fires in these mountains, well, they take it all in stride. As for the tourists? As long as they’re fire savvy, they’re more than welcome. So come out and enjoy our forests while you can.

Featured image by Marcus Kauffman. Location: Big Fall Creek Road, Lowell, United States.

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