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The Big Burn

How To Survive: 5 Tips For Hikers Caught In A Wildfire

Two people stand on a hill overlooking a smoky ridge
Hikers in Griffith Park look west where a layer of smoke from the Saddleridge Fire hangs in the sky, Oct. 11, 2019.
(Robyn Beck
AFP via Getty Images)
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I've been backpacking in the West my entire adult life, and surviving a wildfire didn't used to be a thing you had to worry about — at least not unless you were a firefighter.

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But because of extreme heat and dry forest conditions worsened by climate change, today's wildfires can explode quickly, and move so fast that hikers can get caught. Over Labor Day weekend in 2020, the Creek Fire trapped hundreds of hikers, campers and boaters at Mammoth Pool, a reservoir in the western foothills of the southern Sierra Nevada. Many people waded into the water to avoid the heat and falling embers.

But was that the right approach? What should you really do if you're trapped by a wildfire in the backcountry?

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I spoke with Marty Alexander, a retired fire behavior researcher with the Canadian Forest Service, and Bret Butler, a researcher at the U.S. Forest Service's wildfire research lab in Missoula, Montana, who have both studied this issue.

They both stressed what may sound obvious: Hikers should try, at all costs, to avoid being trapped by a wildfire, because the odds of surviving are low.

To avoid getting trapped:

  • Try to put as much distance between yourself and the fire as possible.
  • Remain upwind, or perpendicular to the direction the fire is moving.
  • Climb to a ridge or highpoint to track the fire's movement, or use a phone or satellite communication device to get this information.

However, if the fire is moving too quickly for you to escape, or all escape routes are blocked, here are five things to keep in mind:

1. Find A Safe Spot

A safe spot is a place that will not burn, meaning it's free of flammable material such as tall dried grass, trees, shrubs or chaparral. Think a rock slide, a green meadow, a large rock slab or a lake. The bigger the area — and the less vegetation — the better. A meadow, for example, is safer than a forest, Butler said.

Once within the safe spot, try to shield yourself from the fire's radiant heat by hiding behind a boulder, a log, or any large object. Try to avoid breathing hot air by covering your face with clothing or, even better, laying face-down on the ground until the fire front has passed. And try to remain calm.

If you're considering wading into a lake, make sure the water is not over your head, nor too shallow to cover your entire body. Firefighters have drowned trying to shelter in water that was too deep, or died of smoke inhalation and burns in water that was too shallow to fully cover them, according to Alexander.

If you're not in a safe spot, you have four options. These options are in no particular order, as one may be more useful than another depending on your situation, according to Alexander.

2. Retreat From The Fire By Running To A Safe Spot

If you can see a safe spot that's 100 feet or less away, and if you're capable of running, try to get there.

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Don't try to outrun a fire over a long distance; many firefighters have died this way when the fire caught up to them. And never run uphill to a safe spot, unless it's less than 20 feet away, because fires move much faster uphill than across flat or downhill terrain, and people move slower.

You won't last very long trying to outrun a fire uphill.
— Marty Alexander, formerly with the Canadian Forest Service,

3. Hunker Down

If you don't see a safe space nearby, or don't think you can get there fast enough, you may need to hunker down where you are.

Look for anything that could provide a shield from radiant heat -- a big tree, a large boulder, a downed log — and get behind it.

Then, look for a small depression in the ground, or make one yourself. Lie down face first on the ground and cover your mouth with fabric. There's a pocket of cool air along the ground that will help prevent you from inhaling so much smoke and hot air, according to Alexander. Butler also suggests covering your body with dirt to help insulate you from the heat.

If, like most hikers, you're wearing synthetic clothing, it may melt in the heat and fuse to your skin. Alexander and Butler disagreed on what to do in this situation. If you have multiple layers of clothing, Butler suggests putting them all on before they melt, because they will insulate your body from heat. Alexander, however, said he'd remove his synthetic clothes.

"You're going to shrink wrap yourself," he said, "Personally, I'd probably go naked."

When the flames pass, Alexander says, stand up and breathe.

4. Consider Burning Out A Spot To Make Your Own Safe Zone

If you're in an open area with tall, dead grass — like much of coastal Southern California in the late summer and fall — consider lighting a fire to burn the vegetation in advance of the wildfire passing through.

Make sure you have enough time to start a fire, and then let it burn an area large enough for you to lay down in. Then, before the wildfire arrives, get inside the burned out area and follow the suggestions for hunkering down. Wait for the wildfire to pass you by.

(This suggestion sounded daunting to me, but Alexander stressed it may be your best option in a fast-moving grass fire where there are few places to shelter from radiant heat. It will not work well in a forest, Butler said, because it would take too long to create a burned out area).

5. Run Through The Flames Into The Burned Out Area

It sounds counterintuitive, but both Butler and Alexander say that if you can see a safe spot or burned out area through a gap in the flames, it may be safer to run through the fire rather than trying to outrun it or hunker down.

Butler suggests wrapping your face in a coat to protect your airway -- you really want to avoid inhaling superheated air and burning your throat. Take a deep breath and hold it while you run.

Don't attempt this if the flames are more than three-to-five feet tall, or the fire front is more than five feet deep, Alexander says, because you probably won't make it.

And remember: the best thing you can do is avoid getting trapped by the fire in the first place.

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Updated September 25, 2022 at 3:00 PM PDT
The time elements on this story were updated.
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