What To Do If You Spot A Wildfire While Hiking

It seems like fires are everywhere this summer. So what should you do if you spot smoke or fire while hiking or backpacking? How should you prepare and where can you find current information? We teamed up with Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest Rangers Deb Kelly and Robin DeMario and scoured information from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group to bring you this basic advice. 

How should you prepare for a hike in wildfire season? The day of or the day before your trip, contact the relevant land management agency to find out local conditions, known fires, road/trail closures, and restrictions. Be sure to come prepared with a topo map and compass and consider evacuation routes in advance. In case a fire needs to be reported, bring the phone numbers for the nearest county sheriff or land management dispatch (911 will also work). Send all this information to your emergency contact. Research the expected weather for the duration of your trip. Pay extra attention to lightning and wind forecasts.

What are the first things you should do if you spot a wildfire in the backcountry? Size it up and try to assess whether or not you’re in danger. Use its proximity to you, the topography, vegetation, and current wind patterns as clues to inform your decision (more info below), and remember (or even photograph) those details as you’ll be asked to describe them when reporting the fire. Pay particular attention to whether it’s burning on the ground, or in the canopy of trees. If the fire is on or near your route forward or backwards, pull out your map and look for safe ways to get around it. If the fire is very small and it feels safe to do so, try to contain it yourself. Separate any flammable materials and create a soil ring around the fire.

How fast do wildfires move and where do they like to go? Fire speed and behavior is extremely varied, condition-dependent and difficult to forecast. Super computers with complex fire forecasting software still struggle to make accurate predictions. If you aren’t sure, it’s always better to err on the side of caution and simply retreat. Speaking in generalities and trends, fires can move anywhere from zero to 14 mph in record-setting grassland fires and up to 6.7 mph in record-setting forest fires. Few forest fires travel faster than .93 mph and most spread at speeds less than .37 mph. According to the NWCG, fires typically travel faster up steep slopes toward passes or saddles, through grasslands and shrub lands, in areas with continuous fuel coverage, in drought periods, on hot days, in the afternoon, in low humidity, in high winds, on S or SW facing slopes, through canyons, chutes, on days with good visibility and when smoke columns rise instead of quickly drifting apart.

What type of “safe” terrain or shelter should you seek if you’re in immediate fire danger? Look for areas that are open (less vegetation), rocky, or that have already been burned. Large bodies of water can also provide shelter. Avoid areas with lots of wood debris, or heavy logs. Being able to keep the fire in your sight is another important consideration.

In what way and how quickly should you report the fire to the land management? If you have the capacity AND it safe to do so, climb to a nearby ridge or summit and check for cell reception. Zero bars? Dial it in first thing when you return to cell service.

What if you’re not sure if the land management is already aware of the fire? If you see no indication of fire responders and were not informed about the fire before your trip, it’s better to err on the safe side and report it as soon as possible.

Should you end your trip early? If you feel at all unsafe, be conservative and turn around or take an alternate route to avoid the fire. You won’t have fun if you’re anxious the entire trip.

What should you do if you spot smoke from a fire way off in the distance? If possible, try to report it from a summit or ridge with your phone. If you can’t get reception, give the information to a passing hiker if their trip is ending before yours. Otherwise, report it to the land management as soon as you get back to town.

What about dormant or smoldering fires with no active flames? These also need to be reported. Often, small fires are known and simply monitored, especially on unsafe or extremely steep slopes. Some of these fires may not “go out” until a season-ending weather event like fall rain or snow. If needed, the land managers may put an area or trail closure in place. This would be posted and information would be available at the local agency office.

Campfires? The Forest Service would like to remind you to check for and be extremely mindful of campfire restrictions. This information can always be obtained from the local land management agency.

We hope you found this information useful and that you stay safe for the rest of wildfire season!

If you’re located in the Northwest, this map is an excellent tool to track current wildfires.

For an extremely basic understanding of wildfire behavior, check out this training course packet from the NWCG (National Wildfire Coordinating Group). To see just how complex even short term fire behavior prediction can be, check out this training course packet on FLAME  (FireLine Assessment MEthod). Of course, neither of these information packets are substitutions for a class with a trained and ceritfied instructor.