Only You Can Avoid Forest Fires

Here's what to do if you're caught near a wilderness wildfire.

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Imagine a giant tinder box. That’s what it looks like in Minnesota’s Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness (BWCAW), where 25 million trees blew down in a windstorm in 2000. For years to come, fire danger will be at an all-time high, much as it is in many areas throughout the West each summer. All total, some 10,000 forest fires sweep through the backcountry every year, which means forethought and knowledge could be keys to your survival.

  • Call or visit the managing agency before your trip. Inquire about current forest fires, fire danger, and whether prescribed burns are scheduled.
  • Use a camp stove instead of a campfire. Twenty percent of all forest fires are started by campfires that get out of hand or aren’t properly extinguished.
  • Be aware of high temperatures, low humidity, long dry spells, and afternoon thunderstorms that have plenty of lightning but little or no rain. All increase the fire danger. (Increased humidity in the morning and evening means less fire danger and safer travel.)
  • Know and watch wind patterns, and look for smoke. Stay upwind of a fire.
  • If conditions are dry and conducive to fires, hike and camp near water, if possible.
  • If you’re caught by the fire, do not try to outrun it; windblown fires move faster than hikers. Embers blown by the wind can travel miles, igniting new fires in front of you.
  • Lie down in a large, wet open area, or preferably a marsh. Or better yet, swim out into open water. If you have a canoe, don your life vest and get underneath your overturned canoe; you’ll be able to breathe cool, trapped air and protect your lungs from heat damage until the fire passes.
  • Use caution even after the fire passes. Avoid stepping in burning stump holes or on hot embers. Remember, burned trees fall easily.