Signal Fire Strategies: Dos and Don’ts for Survival

In this episode of Out Alive Survival Shorts, we discuss the crucial role of signal fires in emergency situations, using a real case story to highlight important dos and don'ts. Former Air Force SERE instructor Jessie Krebs offers expert analysis and practical tips on site selection, fuel choice, smoke color, and other factors critical for survival

Photo: Coconino National Foret

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In this Survival Short Episode of Out Alive, “Signal Fire Strategies,” we delve into the critical role that signaling and signal fires can play in helping people survive in emergency situations. We start with an actual case story about a day-hiker who found himself lost in a remote forest and tried to signal for help, but made a critical mistake that put his life in even greater danger. This cautionary tale highlights the importance of proper planning and execution when creating signal fires in survival scenarios.

To provide expert analysis on this topic, we speak with former Air Force SERE (Survival, Evasion, Resistance, and Escape) instructor Jessie Krebs. Jessie brings a wealth of knowledge and experience to the discussion, having served as a backcountry mountain guide and wilderness therapist before founding OWL Skills, which is dedicated to educating and empowering women and other underrepresented demographics in the skills of surviving emergencies in global wilderness environments.

During the episode, Jessie shares her insights on a range of topics related to signal fires, including site selection, fuel choice, smoke color, and fire safety. She emphasizes the importance of selecting a location that is visible from the air or ground and choosing materials that will burn for a long time and produce thick, visible smoke. She also discusses the potential hazards of signal fires and the importance of taking precautions to ensure that they do not cause unintended harm.

In addition to signal fires, Jessie also discusses alternative signaling methods that people can use in emergency situations. These include using mirrors, flares, as well as creating improvised signs or symbols on the ground. By diversifying their signaling methods, people can increase their chances of being seen or heard by rescuers.

Whether you’re a seasoned outdoors enthusiast or simply someone who wants to be prepared for emergencies, this episode of “Signal Fire Strategies” offers valuable insights and practical advice on how to use signal fires and other signaling methods to increase your chances of survival in survival scenarios. Tune in to learn from the case story and expert analysis provided by Jessie Krebs.




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Welcome to the latest episode of Survival Shorts, where we explore stories in the world of survival with analysis and expert commentary. Today we’re going to discuss an incident that has raised some interesting questions about the personal responsibilities of hikers in emergency situations. 

We’re going to share what happened, and then we’ll have a survival expert walk us through exactly what we could do differently in a similar scenario. I spoke to the journalist who initially reported on this story for Backpacker. We want to make it clear that this story is based on the court documents from this case, and we did not interview the defendant involved.

Adam Roy: My name is Adam Roy, and I’m the executive editor of Backpacker. 

Host: So Phil Powers, a hiker who had a pretty serious mishap and survival scenario, I know you wrote about it for Backpacker, so can you give me a rundown of what happened? 

Adam Roy: Philip Powers was this 37-year-old hiker from Arizona, and he ran into trouble on a hike in 2018.

He set out from this trailhead in this area about an hour northwest of Sedona. His goal was to hike a 17-mile trail. His guidebook rated it as moderate. At first, he hiked to what’s called the Taylor Cabin, which is this stone hut from the 19th century. This was about 14 miles in. A few miles beyond that, he ran into trouble. He basically lost the trail, couldn’t get back on it, and he decided he had to backtrack to the cabin. Things went really wrong from this point. He had not brought a headlamp. And while he had a navigation program on his phone, he had not downloaded any maps for it, and he didn’t have a paper map or compass, so he really had no way of finding the trail again.

Host: Do you know what he did have with him in terms of gear? 

Adam Roy: Yes, I do, because that’s all laid out in the court docs: about a gallon of water, a handful of snacks, a battery-powered cell phone charger, and a handful of camping gear—a sleeping bag, a hammock, some stove fuel, two large knives, or I should say a large knife and a machete.  

Host: A really large knife. 

Adam Roy: Really large knife. 

Host: And so he stayed the night in Taylor Cabin. Then what happened? 

Adam Roy: He was getting dehydrated by this point. He had trouble sleeping he said, due to having some pretty severe leg cramps, he also ran into trouble with some wildlife. He found a rattlesnake under the bed in the cabin and decided he had to kill it.

Host: Yikes. 

Adam Roy: Which he did with his machete. He ended up moving outside to sleep and attempting to set a signal fire, which he set on the ground despite there being a fire ring outside of the cabin. It’s not entirely clear what he thought he was going to accomplish by setting the signal fire, given that it was night and no one was going to be able to see the smoke.

Host: And so then what happened next? 

Adam Roy: So the next day he woke up fairly early. He couldn’t find the trail to continue on, so he basically left the cabin early and attempted to backtrack to where it started. He ran out of water. He ran out of food, and his leg cramps started to become just unbearable. It was really hot that day too, it’s worth mentioning. It had reached about 91 degrees, and he had run out of water at this point. So eventually at some point he decided he had to set a second signal fire, but he was going to make this one a lot bigger. So what he did was gather a bunch of brush and pile it around a standing dead tree. He lit the pile on fire, hoping that it would send the whole dead tree up in flames.

He stuck around for about an hour, decided that this fire was not going to bring any help, and set off toward the trailhead again. So a while after that, he spotted a plane circling and then a helicopter. He attempted to set another emergency fire. This one more or less immediately went out. Eventually, he saw a helicopter circling, took off his orange underwear, put it on a stick, and started waving it around. The helicopter did see him at that point, land, and evacuate him.

Host: Powers was taken to the hospital where he is diagnosed with moderate dehydration and the beginnings of renal failure and breakdown of his muscles. The helicopter that spotted powers was there because that second fire he set actually caught fire and spread into a bonafide wildfire. The fire burned 230 acres and threatened a watershed in Flagstaff.

The fire was eventually contained after nine days, and Powers was charged with a series of misdemeanors for starting the blaze. 

Adam Roy: Powers got hit with a fine of nearly $300,000. 

Host: Wow. That is quite a story. Thanks for sharing that. 

Adam Roy: You’re very welcome, Louisa. 

Host: The courts ordered Phillip Powers to pay a hefty restitution to cover the cost of fighting the fire.

While his defense argued that his actions were a result of life-threatening circumstances, the judge wrote in her ruling that Powers had essentially created his own emergency. From the court document, it’s clear that Powers made more than one mistake before he even contemplated starting a signal fire.

And while we could talk for hours about preparedness and avoiding emergency scenarios in the first place, we’ll focus today’s discussion on signal fires and fire safety. Jessie Krebs knows a thing or two about those topics as a former Air Force SERE Instructor, which stands for Survival Evasion Resistance and Escape, she taught soldiers how to get home safely from behind enemy lines. She’s also a former backcountry mountain guide, wilderness therapist, and is the founder of Owl Skills, whose mission is to educate and empower women and other underrepresented demographics in the skills of surviving emergencies in global wilderness environments.

Jessie Krebs: At SERE training, the main thing we worked with was the five basic needs, and the first and the most important, number one and done is signaling. So what are you going to use to signal with if you end up in trouble? There’s a big difference between survival and all of the other outdoor activities, right?

Survival means something went wrong. And now you want to get back to civilization. If you signal properly and quickly, you’re done. You’re out of the situation. Either are three primary methods of signaling. Electronic is one. It’s huge. There’s so many different electronics that we have now, and sometimes you don’t work in your area or you lose it, or you break it, or the battery dies, right?

A second is pyrotechnic, which our friend used, however, doing it in a safe manner. And so during the day it would be smoke, either white or black smoke, depending what your background is. There’s also manmade things like road flares or marine flares that you can use, and at night it’s going to be fire itself. The flame itself. So understanding the principles around that and which one you can use with pyrotechnics depending on your situation.

The third type is ground-air signals, and these are things like a signal blanket, like a Mylar or a space blanket and laying that on the ground or a signal mirror, which you can flash and can be seen for many miles, or laying out either a V or an X on the ground.

So those are three primary types of signaling: pyrotechnic, electronic and ground-air. 

Host: Thank you so much. That is so helpful. In the case of Phillip Powers, the fine was due as a restitution for the cost to put out the fire that was inadvertently set. Can you talk to us a little bit about best practices, specifically with pyrotechnic signaling?

Jessie Krebs: It really would suck. I know in my mind, like if I were saved, but in the process I created a fire that burned down people’s homes and hurt people. That’s not what I’m going for. I understand, especially when someone gets really dehydrated, it’s hard to make those decisions and to be rational, but more experience and understanding of how fire works and what you need to do to keep it safe and keep it from spreading when you don’t mean it to.

It sounds like he did have a fire circle. There was an area where it was pretty open and there wasn’t much that could catch fire at the cabin that he stayed at. That would’ve been the optimum place for him to light a fire. The whole environment was really dry. Often when you’re in those really dry desert-like areas, you can find spots that have large areas of slick rock, which is just sandstone, exposed stone.

If you can find a flat area that has at least 10 feet out in every direction from the edge of your fire, that’s what you’re looking for. And if you don’t have it, you need to make it getting down to bare mineral soil or rock 10 feet out minimum from the outside edge of that fire circle. He had a very dry background. It was probably mostly a darkish color, and so white smoke would’ve stood out the best. So if that’s the case, I’m going to use a green vegetation to create that white smoke. So once you have a fire going, or even before you light it, go out and gather about chest high pile of green vegetation. This can be the lower branches of trees.

You can take off about the lower one-third of the branches of a conifer especially, and still have the tree survive and be okay. I could use plants, right? I could go along a marsh you have around you. Just grab vegetation. Also make sure you’ve got some way to put it out. And in his case, he didn’t have much water around.

So that can literally be soil sand, right? So I don’t want duff, I don’t want anything that has vegetation in it. I’m looking for mineral soil. So we want stuff that looks sandy, that doesn’t have any pine needles or anything else in it. We just want good sand or dirt. You can use your jacket, your shirt.

Put it on the ground, pile a bunch in and have a good solid pile next to you that you can quickly, if you do see a fire spreading somewhere, you can dump that on it. Water is fantastic. He didn’t have that option in this case. Another thing he can do is put up some kind of a spark arrester. The smoke will go around whatever you put overhead, but sparks will tend to go up and come back down.

So in the military, we would use parachute material, which is just ripstop nylon. It burns very easily, but you can still use that as a spark arrester because of the thermal dynamics. So if I’m worried about sparks going out and flying away, I’m going to rig up about 6, 8 feet over top of that fire directly over it.

I’m going to string up some kind of a tarp or a poncho, rain gear, if I have it. Anything I have that’s going to be directly over the flame and the sparks and the heat go up and hit that and then bounce off and come right back down to the ground. It keeps them from flying off and potentially starting a fire further out.

It’s better to do that if fire danger is really high than to not. So getting all that kind of thing in place. Then starting your fire, making sure it’s a good hot fire. You want to wait for a time when you think someone’s actually going to see it. Unfortunately, with pyrotechnics, there have been many situations where people lit a fire.

Nobody sees them. So pyrotechnics is one of those things where it’s not going to last forever, right? I’m going to have to keep gathering more vegetation or whatever it is. If I’m using something like to make black smoke, I’ve only got so much of what’s creating that black smoke. So making sure you’re waiting for a time when you feel like it’s optimal. When you actually see a plane in the air or there’s a ridge line that you’re sure there’s hikers on because there’s a big trail up there, whatever it is. Wait until there’s a good time to do it and you’re pretty sure someone’s going to see it. And then definitely making sure as best you can, that it’s out before you left. At SERE, we would make sure it was cold at the touch all the way around. You can use rocks or sticks and we would dig down and stir everything up and make sure the ground was cold to the touch all the way around before we left the area.

Host: Is there anything else about this particular story that you think is critical for our listeners to know? 

Jessie Krebs: I hope folks really understand signaling. That is so critical and is the main defining thing between survival and all the other outdoor activities. That’s the No. 1 thing you need to do and be able to do effectively. Knowing ground air signals and pyrotechnics and how to do those safely, that’s really important to keep people safe out there. We’re modern humans. We’re not used to just living off the land and being able to whip out everything. Having just a small survival kit, and it can actually just be a few ounces, can make a huge difference between your survival and making sure that you can get help. Help rescuers find you. Let’s help them find us and get us out of there. 

Host: You can learn more about practical survival skills from Jessie Krebs on our website at, where she’ll be a regular contributor. You should also check out her Survival school

This episode of Survival Shorts from Out Alive was produced and written by me, Louisa Albanese with production and editing by Zoe Gates. Sound Design and scoring was by Jason Paton. Do you have a story or a burning survival question that you want us to answer? You can email me at, and if you enjoy Out Alive, then you can help us by following the show and leaving us a rating.

From 2022