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Planning vacations around wildfires. It’s officially a thing, if you’re traveling in summer to large parts of the West. Here, a badass TravelingMom firefighter offers tips, advice and stern warnings so you can travel safely and, most importantly, help prevent additional wildfires this season.
The views of this post do not reflect the views of any federal, state, county, cooperator or any other firefighting municipality or organization.
If you’re from California or maybe Colorado, you’re used to fire as a part of life. Montana, Oregon and Washington are being hit particularly hard as well this year.
With the spread of wildfires, there’s always a chance you’ll be in an area when a fire starts. Or maybe you had planned to pass through an area where fires already are burning.
We have more of a year-round fire situation now, so our crews and forces are taxed. The national guard and military are sometimes called in to supplement the traditional firefighting resources.
Here are some ways you can help keep fires at bay and advice on how to keep yourself and your family safe if you find yourself near a wildfire.
Traveling to Wildfire Country: Heed Warnings
Fire is everywhere. I’m having trouble thinking of a single state that doesn’t have some wildfire presence. Heck, I once had to respond to a fire while working in the temperate rainforests of Alaska.
Fortunately, there’s an entire command structure between the government agencies and area municipalities nationwide that is meant to keep everyone safe. However, if you’re heading to any western states, you could be impacted in some way by Mother Nature’s fury.
Skip the Fire Selfie
Even in the destruction of watching forests burn, when the sun sets and hilltops flicker and sparkle with embers still alight, you cannot help but be mesmerized by fire. It’s gorgeous, awe-inspiring and beautiful. Even those most painfully affected are in awe of the magnitude of the destruction.
I guess that’s why you see so many people pulled over taking “fire selfies.” Please don’t do this.
Firefighters feel like they’re in an episode of Storm Chasers some days: The general public stops on the side of the road, iPhones out, ready to be the first to get 55 likes on Instagram by posting the most intense footage.
I get it. We all get it. It’s not any different than the pull when you see the blue and red flashing lights along the side of the Interstate. You’re compelled to look. And take selfies. Resist the urge, especially if you are driving. (Not taking selfies while driving should be a no-brainer. But I bet you can find a headline relating to this somewhere.)
Drive with Your Headlights On
Are there signs warning of smoke ahead? Slow down and turn on your headlights, even midday.
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Driving through smoke is one of the most dangerous things you’re likely to do in or near a wildfire. Generally, there are public safety professionals with their lights on, helping to guide you to a safer route. Make their job easier by slowing down and turning on your headlights.
If there are wildfires actively burning in the region you’re traveling to, call ahead. This is especially important for camping on public lands.
Know the plan in case the park/campground is shut down or officials order an evacuation. TIf this happens during your stay, please cooperate. No one is trying to ruin your vacation in Yosemite. They are trying to keep you ad your family alive.
Curiosity is at its peak during a catastrophe. On the news, we see declarations of disaster, evacuations, footage of the destruction. Somehow, it’s not real until you see it firsthand.
This is all a drastic change from the quietude of nature you wanted on your vacation. It IS exciting. Even when it’s also tragic. And it’s human nature. Just try to keep your wits about you and not cause more chaos in the process of traveling through.
The Right Way to Travel Through Wildfire Areas
“Looky-Lou’s” are akin to insects buzzing around a firefighter’s hardhat. But in some areas stopping to gawk is much more serious. It can be downright deadly to be in the wrong place, especially for no good reason.
When you see the signs that warn: “Slow! Smoke over the road. Headlights on for Safety!” there is a really good chance that firefighters and law enforcement officers are in the area working. They’re hyper-vigilant watching for traffic. But someone driving like a stunt actor through flames and smoke isn’t going to end well for anyone.
Listen to the Experts
It’s also surprisingly hard to imagine just how blinding the smoke is when driving (even with lights on) until you’re in the thick of it. It’s hard to see. Literally.
If you MUST be in the area at all, follow instructions. Closures are there for a reason. Even if the fire isn’t visible to you, the road like is closed because the area is threatened by the fire if, for example, the winf shifts abruptly. (This is a major contributor in almost every fatality in wildfire history.)
If local residential areas are threatened, manpower has to be diverted from fighting the fire to herd the tourists and help secure the neighborhood closures. If everyone cooperates, the forces can get back to fighting the blaze collectively, sooner.
Keep Calm and Cooperate
Remember that scene from Disney, Planes: Fire and Rescue, where the firefighters are being dispatched and they say “Fires happen all the time, you guys only hear about the big ones?” It’s true. The film offered a relatively realistic portrayal of fighting wildfire, if an adorable, colorful one.
Even then, you’ll recall the evacuation problems at the lodge when initial warnings weren’t taken seriously. When an evacuation is called for, leave as safely, but quickly as you can.
Follow instructions. Don’t take short cuts. This isn’t the time to “re-route” with Siri. Listen to the officials, they have spent hours trying to plan for all the possible outcomes that will keep you as safe as possible. Situations also change very fast. What you heard from the barista at Starbucks may no longer be the best information.
Firefighters Have Your Best Interests at Heart
It’s honestly one of the WORST jobs to have to tell people no. We’re in this line of work to be outdoors and help in emergencies. Not to disappoint people.
“No, you cannot walk your dog up that rocky wash. Sorry. I know. The fire is two miles away and it’s bluebird skies here. But no.”
“I’m sorry, I know you’ve just paddled and portaged for hours and have finally got your perfect wilderness campsite set and you’re enjoying your dehydrated beef-ish stew. But, you’re going to have to pack up — there’s a chance the fire could come this way.”
Firefighters and information officers do not like to rain on anyone’s parade. Wilderness rangers loathe going into your campsite and making you leave. Most of the time it’s only what-if scenarios that are driving better-safe-than-sorry decisions, but then again, what if?
Stop the Wildfire Before it Starts
As powerful as we humans consider ourselves, when things like fire come to call, it’s like Mother Nature’s wrath. We have few weapons other than time, hope and manpower once an ember is lit. So much is to be said for prevention — before the vacation turns into apocalyptic ashes falling around your picnic area!
Watch Those Campfires
While camping, be extra careful about your fire. If restrictions are in place and you light a fire anyway, you could be fined or asked to leave. Worse, you might end up paying for a multi-million dollar firefight if your campfire escapes.
If it’s dry, maybe PB&J sandwiches can trump hot dogs for dinner.
Make Sure Fires are Out
Make sure fires are “dead out” before leaving. This is an amazing opportunity to take the lessons outdoors and teach kids about fire safety and outdoor integrity and responsibility. Remember, Smokey Bear is an icon.
If they are disappointed there won’t be s’mores, tell a story about a little black bear cub and how he became the face of wildfire prevention.
By all means — LEAVE THE FIREWORKS AT HOME!
Use Common Sense
Common sense and keeping apprised of conditions around you matters as much as your own fire safe actions. Backcountry camping requires preparation just as front country camping requires cooperation!
If you’re hiking in a popcorn-dry forest and a lightning storm passes through, odds are good that you might have a few new fire starts nearby within a day or so (depending on the region.)
If you smell smoke, be cautious, but also know that “drift smoke” can affect areas several thousand miles away. It doesn’t always mean you’re in danger, but be vigilant.
The same goes for adventures beyond wildfire country and extends into our favorite resort cities. Maybe you’re not camping out at all — you’re in town to enjoy a waterpark! It’s still good to know proper procedures (and follow instructions) should the resort need to evacuate.
Have a Contingency Plan
If you know you’re vacationing in an area that is prone to wildfire during certain seasons or if there are warnings the area is ripe for fire activity, have a contingency plan. Figure out where you can go if your park, forest or resort is unavailable due to proximity to the fire action.
Ideally, you should try to avoid backcountry and desolate back roads in fire areas entirely. By planning ahead just a bit you can salvage your vacation and help everyone stay safe!
Check with local land managers — out west, a good bet is Bureau of Land Management or the USDA Forest Service, or the state department of forestry or natural resources. The National Park Service is another good spot to find information about on-going incidents in your intended travel area.
Buy Travel Insurance
This might be a great time to check with your insurance providers. Check to see if your home is covered for wildfire damage (you’ll travel at ease with questions answered.) Also check with your trip insurance provider and buy travel insurance before you go. If it’s late August and you’re taking in Yosemite or the Klamath National Forest, yes, you might want to do some checking.
If you have reservations in hotels or resorts and you know fires are impacting the area, call ahead (by a few days). There may be flexible options for cancelling due to the situation. Most are used to it and will be able to help you with options. They may even provide information about road closures and extra local tips. As unhelpful as it may seem for planning — things change quickly for better and worse — a road closed one day can open the next if the wind shifts and smoke clears.
We’re not suggesting you deep six the plans to enjoy a summery mountain getaway. We just hope you and your family enjoy nature while keeping these wildfire safety tips in mind.
Fortify Your Base Camp
Before you leave, try to ensure your home fires are secure.
If you live in a wooded area, make sure your firewood piles and any flammable material is well away from your home. Your local fire officials should be able to help you make your home more defensible — the FireWise program is one to look into to find out more. This is a great way to proactively help firefighters.
Leave word with someone if you’ll be out of town. This way, if your neighborhood is evacuated while you’re away, officials will easily know you aren’t there as they go door to door.
The Wildland Firefighter Foundation
Not only can you be a BIG help by being smart and courteous in fire areas, you can help families of those brave firefighters who aren’t lucky enough to return home unscathed — or at all. Check out the Wildland Firefighter Foundation. The fund helps families that lost loved ones and firefighters who were injured in the line of duty.
The dozens of signs that say “thank you” along roads, on sandwich boards and reader signs outside of diners are always appreciated. There is nothing more rewarding for a firefighter than helping the people of an area and knowing how they’ve touched lives. It’s true, we love our work and t’s always nice to know folks care!
Wildfire is unpredictable by nature. That much we know. Our vast public lands in the west are undoubtedly going to see fire each season, so we might as well plan well for what is inevitable. The trick is to be aware in other areas too — like the Smoky Mountains or even the rainforests of Alaska.
Everyone can help out — you don’t need to be the one behind the fire hose to make a difference when traveling to wildfire regions of the country (and internationally, too!)
About the author
Amanda Williams was a wildland firefighter. In a 17-season career, she’s seen her share of crazy moments when it comes to the wildland urban (and public) interface!
She says: “Since most firefighters are also public civil servants by default, we’re focused on helping people but many incidents could be easily avoided with a little common sense. I haven’t had any heroic bear cub rescues, but I’ve been riding in engines sweaty and sooty after extinguishing a blaze as I read “Thank you, firefighters!” on poster board signs along the highway.” The best way to thank firefighters and honor their work is really in prevention and care when you’re in the forest and wild lands.
“Ultimately, we’re out there because we all love our wild landscapes. We all just want to go back home to our loved ones when it’s over, and we want that for you, too.”