Many of us have felt the prolific heat wave that blanketed across the United States this past week, and while it may be waning in some areas, extremely high temperatures will continue to persist throughout the rest of the Summer. It's not uncommon for high temperatures to create drier conditions that a wildfire can thrive in. In fact, it's becoming more and more common with each passing year, with the Dixie Fire in 2021 sending smoke from California all the way to us in Massachusetts. This is a stark reality for how a changing climate can have a direct effect on all of us. As Summer is synonymous with camping and camp fires, there are a few things to take into consideration in what you can do to help prevent a forest fire from occurring, and what you can do if you find yourself in close proximity to a wildfire.
The first thing in fire safety is awareness. Check the local weather reports and air quality indexes to get an idea of potential risks. While it may be disheartening to cancel or postpone a planned trip due to wildfire potentials, it's better to be safe than sorry. If the area you'll be visiting has a potential for wildfires, or is known for it, packing some extra materials would be a good idea to be prepared in case the worst happens, such as a face cover or mask. If a wildfire does occur you need to take appropriate action based on your proximity to it. More often than not, wildfires are human in origin, meaning that there is a high chance that a wildfire can occur on regularly human trafficked areas such as trailheads and campsites.
Consistently high temperatures with low or non-existent rain periods can create perfect conditions for fires to spread. As the brush and trees dry out under a hot sun with high temperatures, small things like embers, which commonly shoot out of a controlled campfire, can have a snowball effect. Other things like an improperly discarded cigarette can start wildfires as well, so it's important to have proper fire discipline on anything that contains a spark. For campfires, ensure that the fire area is properly sealed with a fire ring, which helps to ensure no loose embers end up outside of the intended area. Pay close attention to the fire and the embers. While most embers will fizzle out quickly, there is the occasional large ember that may shoot out and land onto the brush. If caught early on, you can stifle this quickly and would have prevented a potentially dangerous forest fire. Finally, when you're preparing to move out, make sure you completely stifle the fire by pouring water and stirring the ashes until the embers are broken apart and have lost their heat. If you're a smoker, carry a water bottle with a small volume of water to properly dispose of them. Not only does this keep the non-biodegradable cigarette butts out of the forest, the water will suffocate the flame as well.
While you're out there, keep an eye out for smoke or ash, which would be a direct indicator that there is a large fire present. This doesn't necessarily mean it's close to you, as weather patterns can carry smoke very far. The Dixie Fire blanketed much of the country in a hazy smoke, but the fires were located in California. Pay close attention to the color of the smoke. Yellow smoke can be harmful to your lungs, so a face covering should be used to minimize your inhalation of particles. White smoke indicates fast burning fires that may only burn for a short duration, usually on dried grass or brush. Dark smoke is the most dangerous, with longer lasting fuel sources such as raw timber. These fires will send embers far, igniting more potential fires which would then combine over time. These are the large forest fires we see on the news, and if any plume of smoke is visible on the horizon, you should immediately evacuate and notify fire safety officials.
If you do come across a plume of smoke or open flames, it's best to retreat in the opposite direction. Wind direction plays a huge role in the path of the fire, so moving in the opposite direction is recommended to reduce your risk of burns and smoke inhalation. As flames travel faster uphill than down, moving up hill is only recommended if you're near the crest and able to descend on the other side. If it's a large fire, travelling over already blackened earth can be viable, but must be done so cautiously. There could still be hotspots or ember piles which could cause burns, so tread carefully, and only do so if it's the only option to escape a spreading fire. It's important to note that wildfires can quickly balloon in size, and are increasingly difficult to contain as our climate changes. In the case you find yourself in the midst of the fire, looking for a large, flat area with minimal vegetation and preferably a running source of water would be the best chance to avoid it. As a fire can only spread where there is available fuel, placing yourself outside of any flammable sources means the fire will likely not spread to you. There is still the danger of smoke inhalation, and this is where a face cover or mask would be absolutely necessary.
As I stated in the beginning, awareness will be your best tool against wildfires. While most of us may never encounter this, there is the real possibility for many popular destinations across the country that a wildfire may occur. Make sure to check the local weather and air quality indexes of your destination, and inform friends and family of your trip so that others can be aware of your location in the event of a worst case scenario.