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Wildfires 101: How To Preserve Life & Reduce Injuries

Wildfires 101 firefighters putting out fires

Did you know that there are more wildfires in the eastern American states than in the West? However, western fires tend to be bigger and burn longer. Consequently, no matter where you go camping in America, knowing basic wildfire tips can keep you safe and protect your family. You also need to know what to do if a fire breaks out in your area. I spoke to the experts to get some advice.

Wildfires 101: Basic Safety Tips Before You Go

Preserving life and limb during a wildfire begins with the choices you make before you hit the road. Where you camp, when you camp, and the activities you engage in make a difference.

When To Go

Camping is a year-round activity, and everyone has seasons they prefer. When it comes to wildfires, however, there is a particular time of year when risks rapidly increase.

Ivan O’Neill co-founded Madronus Wildfire Defense, a company specializing in reducing wildfire risks. When choosing a time to go camping, he recommends the following:

If we’re talking about the western US, consider … how much rainfall or snow the area received over the winter and spring, and the amount of time since the last rain happened.

He also recommends a specific time when it might be easiest to avoid wildfires:

Going before July or after November or December is usually a good rule of thumb. However, with climate change, fall rains are arriving later and later (e.g., the Camp Fire destroyed Paradise, CA, on Nov 8th, 2018), and spring rains are less and less common after mid-April.

What To Look For

When choosing a campground, relying on YouTube videos and beautiful photos from Instagram is tempting. These are excellent ways to know if a campground will be enjoyable, but fire risks change rapidly.

Consequently, O’Neill recommends calling ahead and asking about vegetation management and measures the park has in place to combat potential wildfires. You can also use satellite images from your favorite GPS to find a defensible space in the campground.

O’Neill explains that this is an area where “vegetation thinning work has happened … You want to see some separation in the tree canopy and limbs trimmed up at least 10 to 15 feet off the ground (for conifers).”

These are some additional campground features that are ideal for avoiding or escaping wildfires:

  • Campsites that are close to bodies of water, such as rivers, lakes, or wetlands
  • Campsites in the desert with very little vegetation, such as Joshua Tree in California
  • Low-lying areas because fire tends to burn uphill

What Not To Do

Camping is an amazing experience, but it is not without its risks. We create some of these risks ourselves by not following safety measures. In How To Prevent Wildfires While Camping, experts tell us how to identify safety hazards and prepare for a safe camping trip.

How To Prepare

Ivan O’Neill points out that many people will not know when wildfire warnings go out for the campsites they already occupy. If you have service, make a habit of checking the fire warnings for your area. He adds, “In California, you can download Watch Duty to get notifications about wildfires in each county. They should expand to other states in the coming years.”

He also says:

Consider purchasing a GMRS radio and license, learn how to use it, and ask what the emergency channels are when you check into the campground. FRS radios sold in big box stores are better than nothing, but those are really meant for communication between family groups and caravans.

Diane Vukovic, a Primal Survivor disaster preparedness expert, recommends NOAA radios as an alternative. She explains that the best ones have a feature that only turns the radio on when there is an active alert.

Wildfires 101: What To Do When Wildfires Affect Your Campground

Getting trapped in a wildfire is a terrifying experience. Staying calm and knowing what to do can save lives and reduce the risk of serious injury.

Wildfire Evacuations at Established Campgrounds

If you are camping at an established campground, you might only need to follow evacuation orders to get out safely. O’Neill says:

Campgrounds and well-established parks (as opposed to state or national forests and wilderness areas) usually have staff and law enforcement. They will carry out orderly evacuations in a timely manner if there’s a threat.

If you are like me, one of your primary concerns is whether you will be able to take your travel trailer with you. O’Neill has some advice for that too:

If it’s an orderly evacuation with lots of time, then evacuating with a trailer is probably fine. If it’s an emergency evacuation in the middle of the night with thousands of embers falling all around you, you should not. Not only does it take up more space on the road, but you’ll slow yourself down and limit your options in a pinch if you have to drive off-road.

Whether you plan to take your trailer with you or not, remember to turn off the propane!

Wildfire Evacuations While Dispersed Camping

Dispersed camping is a great way to enjoy the great outdoors with lower costs. You also have more room to explore and enjoy absolute peace and quiet. However, this isolation can create additional risks, so get familiar with wildfires 101 tips.

O’Neill says:

In less developed campgrounds and areas, you will need to be aware of your surroundings and the weather and look for smoke columns that could indicate a wildfire is growing dangerous.

He also recommends knowing what direction to evacuate in when a fire is afoot:

Wildfires tend to travel uphill if the wind isn’t blowing at 20-plus mph. So, if you’re in a situation where you have to get out, you want to evacuate on roads or trails downhill of fires. Obviously, if there’s a fire above you, but the wind is blowing strongly at you, you are at risk.

Most people have a safety plan in place for their children and grandchildren. Do you have a plan in place for your fur babies? It might be time to work on one. I have a backpack carrier and keep it inside my trailer or tent. So, if I ever have to make a run for it, my adventure kitty comes with me.

You can find Shadow on Instagram @ShadowthePRCat!

Wildfires 101: What To Do During an Evacuation

It’s hard not to panic when a wildfire engulfs your campground and threatens your safety. You might also find it difficult to leave your brand-new camper or worry about what to do with the three cats inside. Salvage what you can, but O’Neill stresses the importance of evacuating when told to do so.

He also shares the following tips:

  • Do not drive on the opposite side of the road unless told to do so.
  • When evacuating, the safest place is often inside your vehicle―unless it catches on fire.
  • Turn off vents and AC to prevent smoke from coming in.
  • Wear an N95 mask or full face shield with N100 cartridges to prevent smoke inhalation.
  • Ensure you have 0.5 to 2 gallons of water for everyone in the car.
  • If you can, have a wool blanket for each person, which can help shield you from radiant heat. Wool is less flammable than other fabrics.

Wildfire safety is crucial, no matter where you live in America―or the rest of the world. As O’Neill has pointed out, climate change and droughts have made even previously resilient areas more susceptible to dangerous burns.

That said, getting caught off-guard by a wildfire while camping is relatively rare. Preparedness can help keep it that way.

Happy adventuring!

Author’s Note: I would like to thank the people who took the time to share their insights as we strive for safe camping and wildfire prevention. I have included links to the organizations they founded or work with. TAXA Outdoors is not affiliated with these organizations and shares the links in good faith. Also, thanks to RODNAE Productions for the main image.