Depending on where you live and play outdoors, wildfires may be more of a risk than earthquakes, floods or tornadoes. While some areas are more prone to wildfires than others, the right (or wrong) combination of meteorological factors (humidity, temperature, wind, etc.) and density of vegetation can create the optimal conditions for a fire almost anywhere.
Here in northwestern Alberta, wildfires are almost a seasonal occurrence. The whole world watched the destruction waged on Fort McMurray in 2016 by the epic wildfire that for nearly a week burned its way across nearly 1.5 million acres of forest, farm, residential, commercial and industrial land and it continues to smolder in places as of the date of this post. Depending on where you travel through parts of northern British Columbia, Alberta and Saskatchewan, you will encounter endless miles of rampikes littered along the landscape, creating an eerie succession of boreal wastelands as a result of the rampant destruction.
Wildfires can start from both manmade and natural sources and spread quickly, sometimes in multiple directions due to continually changing wind. The embers of fires can be carried for several miles on high winds, jump areas and ignite new fires in completely new locations adding to the danger and complexity of safely leaving the wilderness -especially if you are in a remote area at the time.
The key to successful survival in any situation is without a doubt situational awareness and wildfires are no different. You may not be able to directly see the smoke of the wildfire depending on the local terrain and prevailing winds, but some early warning signs can include:
- The persistent smell of campfire
- A pronounced "haze" in the sky
- Falling ash
If you are able determine there is an active wildfire, stay calm, but leave the area immediately. Hopefully you have a basic familiarity of the terrain specifics in all directions around you from which you can decide the best avenue of retreat. You will want to head downhill from the fire if at all possible since both heat and flames travel upwards faster than they do downwards. Regardless of whether you are moving up or down hill to escape, be sure to stay OUT of canyons, draws, valleys and any other "channel" type terrain features that reside on an incline since they act as chimneys and draw both heat and smoke up through them.
Smoke inhalation is the leading cause of deaths from fires of all types and causes thermal injury to the upper airway, irritation or chemical injury to the airways from soot, asphyxiation, and toxicity from carbon monoxide (CO) and other gases. You may need to protect your airway from the smoke by soaking a cloth such as a rag, spare t-shirt, or even a sock with water and using it as makeshift respiratory protection. Alternatively, you can cinch the shirt you are wearing high enough around your lower face to allow yourself to breath inside your clothing.
The wind is going to be your biggest asset in determining safe routes of travel during this time:
- Stay upwind (and down hill) of smoke and fire.
- If the wind is at your face and the fire is to your back, keep heading into the wind.
- If the wind is coming at you from the same direction as the fire, move away from both at an oblique angle so that you work your way out of its path, as opposed to attempting to outrun it on its course. Remember that sparks may have blown ahead of you on the wind, so make movements that won't risk leading you into a second fire.
While on the move, you need to be heading towards:
- Areas least likely to fuel a fire, such as open fields or if the situation demands and safe enough to do so, any area that has just burned. The risk from smoke will be greater, but all of the existing fuel will have been previously consumed. This is when respiratory protection will be the most critical.
- Bodies of water such as rivers, ponds and lakes -which happen to primarily reside at lower elevations and are more likely to be in the direction you should be heading. If you find a big enough body of water, get in as far from shore as possible and submerge yourself as low as you can and avoid any spots that may have overhanging trees.
- Low-laying "pockets" or depressions in the landscape if no water is available.
If you find you have run out of room because of terrain restrictions, or out of time due to fatigue or the speed of the fire, then you may have to hunker down and wait the fire out. Obviously this is the least desirable option, but there are things you can do to greatly increase your odds for survival.
- Steer clear of dense vegetation -as this will surely burn under the intense heat of the approaching fire.
- Clear the immediate area of as much combustible material as you can.
- Lay down in the lowest point in the terrain.
- If you happen to find a road, lay down in the ditch on the opposite side of the fire, choosing a spot that has overhead clearance. If there is no ditch, you can lay in the middle of the road but be aware that vehicles using the road for escape may not be able to see you in time to stop
- Cover yourself with anything that could serve as protection against heat and flame, such as mud, dirt, or sand or wet your clothes with any water you may have as a last resort.
- Lie face down to stay below the super heated current passing overhead as the fire nears and stay in place until it passes.
- The primary advantage of escaping fire at night is that you can see the fire from a greater distance than you can during the day. The downside however, is that you can not see the smoke, and navigating through foreign terrain in low/no light conditions can prove extremely dangerous since it slows your movement, and may cause you to end up trapped by the fire. When at all possible, find a creak or stream and follow it down (walking in it if it is shallow enough) and away from the area.
- Don't worry about gathering your gear -time is more valuable than gear. You can buy more gear later on. For this reason, it is smart to always have your pack (with the minimum essentials inside) next to you while asleep so that in needed you can wake up, grab it and go.
While no one knows exactly what caused the Fort McMurray fire, one popular theory is that it was carelessly started by a campfire that was either left unattended or not properly extinguished. So remember to exercise caution and good judgment when building campfires during dry seasons or when fire bans are on. The damage to nature and the potential loss of life and property is simply inexcusable and completely avoidable.
While this is by no means an exhaustive list of all possible things to consider, these points if followed can greatly increase your chances to successfully escape and evade a wildfire. With the ever-expanding reach of cell phone towers and satellite connected devices, technology can be an effective countermeasure tool. There are numerous apps available for areas where wildfires are prevalent that can warn individuals of high risk conditions and alert of fires as they develop so that hikers and campers have time to get to safety.
Perhaps the best method of defense is proper pre-planning before you head out to the back country. Take the time to know the current weather conditions of the area you plan to explore beforehand and have a means to keep your phone charged if you know you will be in an area that supports mobile service. Carry a map and compass, identify and mark possible evacuation routes for each leg of your journey and make sure everyone in your group is familiar with information before you head out.
Wildfires are seriously dangerous and many professional, highly trained fire fighters have died on the job, while wearing better gear and having more resources than you will have. Make the effort to learn what you need to stay safe -and then be sure to put it into practice. Your chances of survival may depend on it. I would love to hear your thoughts on this post and should you have any additional tips or advice for other readers, please be sure to leave them in the comments below.