Learn Not to Die in a Forest Fire

Climate change is a fact whether you want to contribute it to mankind’s actions, Godly intervention or just the ways of science and nature. To deny it justifies you being classified a pure fool. Nature is changing and as it does it has dramatic effects on mankind, from rising sea levels, never before experienced blazing temperatures and, somewhat overlooked by some politicians, the increased rates of forest fires. Currently California and several other states are fighting enormous forest fires which are consuming thousands of acres of land, reducing them to blackened ash. It’s time to learn not to die in a forest fire. If you’re thinking I’m being a little over dramatic …. you’ve never experienced the horrors of a forest fire.

The danger has always been there, that’s why “Smokey the Bear” was created as a public service announcement that would draw attention and be remembered, and it has been a tremendous success. So why the increased danger and attention? The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection estimate they will fight over 700 wild land fires this year. That’s not only a dramatic increase in number of fires, but the size and ferociousness of the fires makes fighting them much more dangerous and time consuming.

Per a Fire Department announcement of Butte County California, “The public needs to be aware of fire safety – that’s part of backpacking and hiking now days. People need to pay attention to their surroundings and provide for their own safety while being responsible in a forest.” in other words … learn not to die in a forest fire.

What’s climate change have to do with this? Scientist believe climate change is responsible for the extreme drought conditions the Western United States is experiencing as well as the extreme high temperatures, a perfect combination for instantaneous combustion and fire starting.

Recently in Oregon back country a 15 year old boy threw a firecracker into a ravine, normally an innocent act. This one firecracker started a blaze that consumed 200 acres of standing timber and trapped 176 hikers, who thankfully made their way to a popular swimming hole at Punch Bowl Falls, where they waited in the water for the fire to burn away around them. Had they not reached the water the chances of all 176 hikers perishing in the flames would have been high.

A similar fire broke out a few miles from this one, the Eagle Creek Fire, and consumed 50,000 acres, with damages estimated at 40 million dollars before it could be contained. Although several firefighters were injured, there was no loss of life which was considered a miracle.

The National Weather Service (NWS) predicts that up to 11 states will see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent over the next 20 years. 500 percent! That’s enormous! NWS spokesperson Pawlitz “the reality is anyone who enjoys outdoor recreation will have to accept fire as a daily reality and will have to learn to deal with it.” In other words, learn not to die in a forest fire.


Analyze direction of smoke

Different Types of Forest Fires:

To the novice a wall of flames approaching you is a fire … a big fire. But in reality fires are broken into 3 categories, based on hazard level of fires and the propagation speed. Crown fire, Ground fire and Peat fire.

  1. The fire classified a Crown fire is the most dangerous. These types of fires burn trees and depending on the wind speed and direction can move with astonishing speed making them very deadly.

  2. The Ground fire is characterized by burning of grasses and lower bushes, but if not contained can develop into a crown fire as it begins to burn trees.

  3. The Peat fire is the least dangerous to humans, but can be extremely irritating as peat will smolder and release pungent smoke into the air which will cause a person to choke and perhaps vomit. Once removed the person quickly returns to normal.

Regardless of which type of fire it is, it’s rather easy to detect the outbreak of fire.

  1. You will smell smoke

  2. Observe restlessness of birds, depends on the time of year. If they have babies in nest they will panic as they know their chicks are in extreme peril, if not nesting they will fly continually or tree to tree.

  3. Should you begin to see wildlife react strangely or untypical such as deer passing close by or normally unseen animals, coyote or fox, suddenly visible

These are all sure signs of something being wrong. It may be an approaching thunderstorm or other natural event, but be sure to investigate. Your life may depend on it.

Fire in close proximity:

Let’s assume you or one of your party has accidentally started a fire and you spot it. Move quickly and with purpose to tend to the issue, but don’t panic. Panic creates irrational decisions and actions which will only compound the severity of the problem.

  1. Detecting a small grass fire immediately extinguish it by spraying water on it or covering it with soil. Small areas can be put out by stamping it out with your feet or throwing wet clothing over the flame. Green limbs may also be used to stamp the fire out.

  2. If you realize you are not going to be able to put the fire out on your own, it’s important you leave the burning area before you become trapped or overwhelmed with smoke. You’ll most likely have a sense of responsibility and accepting the fire is out of your control may not be easy, but you dying in a fruitless attempt to extinguish the flames will help nothing. Get Out!

  3. You want to totally escape the fire, not run back into it if it outflanks you. Check the direction the wind is blowing. Unless you know you can make it to safety, your truck is parked close by, never run with the wind as the fire can travel, wind assisted, faster than you can run. Travel perpendicular to the wind as your chances of walking around the fire are greatly enhanced.

  4. If there is no wind or you cannot determine the direction of flow, search for migrating animals or birds as they will always know the best way to escape.

  5. If you have a cell phone call 911. They will send rescue personnel to fight the fire and/or rescue you.

  6. No cell service, but you are familiar with the area, run to the nearest body of water, open clearing, forest road, creek or pond. Cover your mouth and nose with clothing to keep the smoke from completely disabling you.

  7. Final Action. If you find yourself surrounded and unable to escape the flames you must do whatever possible to survive. Locate an area which has already been burned, it may still contain hot embers so kick the upper layer of ash away. Lay down, the air along the ground is less smoke filled, cover your mouth and nose and wait for the fire to pass. This of course is a last chance action as chances of surviving are … let us say … not real good. Upon succeeding in escaping the fire, immediately contact the authorities.

Ounce of Prevention is worth a pound of Cure:

Ever hear that old saying? It goes along with Learn Not to Die in a Forest Fire. Taking simple preventive measures will possibly prevent the need to use drastic and possibly dangerous measures to get out of harms way. People who enter the woods normally don’t consider the dangers they may encounter.. if they did they may change their mind about going. Use these simple methods to help insure your safety.

  1. Pay attention to the weather forecast and current news headlines. If they indicate a higher than average possibility of a potential fire, it may be better to postpone the trip.

  2. Let someone know where you are going and when you will be back. It’s hard to look for someone if you don’t know they’re missing.

  3. Whatever food and water you plan to take … increase that amount.. just in case

  4. Make sure your cell phone battery is fully charged. Technology has made dead zones for cells less prevalent, but a dead battery is still a dead battery.

  5. Unless you are well equipped don’t venture too far off the beaten path. There is plenty of privacy within walking distance of safety.

  6. Lastly, use extreme caution building a fire and be sure it is totally out before leaving.

According to all the Experts, Wildfires are going to bigger and more frequent in the future, this what you must do to increase your chances of survival.

Before your next hike in the woods, here are a few helpful strategies if you find yourself staring at flames and rising smoke.

  1. Use your head before heading out on a hike. People anticipating a short trek may walk in flip-flops, carry little water, no food and are dressed wrong. Do not wear synthetic fabric clothing as it will melt into your skin if exposed to hot temperatures. Wool fabric is actually your best protection, but is hot to wear.

  2. Check weather forecasts.

  3. Check news media for reports of fires anywhere your planned destination.

If You Spot a Fire…

  1. The first thing you do is determine wind direction by analyzing the smoke. If the smoke is traveling straight up, that indicates there is no wind and that is good – the fire will move slowly.

  2. If you see the smoke is streaming in one direction across the horizon that’s bad as it indicates winds and the blaze will travel fast. It’ll also tell you if the fire is coming your way or traveling away from you. Should it be coming at you, don’t hesitate. Run! Get out of the forest asap.

  3. By the nature of the beast fires burn uphill. Knowing this your best bet is to travel downhill and upwind using dirt roads, stream-beds, or the hiking path if it is not enclosed with adjacent or overhanging vegetation. You want to stay away from anything that will burn if possible. If possible walk in a perpendicular angle to the fire in order to flank it.

If You are caught in a Fire with No Escape: Learn Not to Die in a Forest Fire

Professional firefighters have become trapped by fast moving and unpredictable forest fires so you becoming trapped would come as no surprise. As stupid as this sounds … try to stay as calm as possible and think. You must adopt the attitude of wait there no matter how uncomfortable … and it will be extremely uncomfortable.

  • Outrunning a raging inferno is impossible, therefore your goal is to wait it out.

The safest place in an active fire zone is what firefighters call the “in the Black” an area which has already been burned to ashes by the flames which now have moved on to fresh tinder.


Safe Haven

  • Locate a depression, the deeper the better in the topography, such as a roadway with a ditch and little to no vegetation. Lay down on your stomach, feet towards fire (face away from the fire), dig a hole and stick your face in it to help avoid breathing smoke. A handkerchief or other piece of clothing, not synthetic, placed over your face will help.

  • As the fire burns around you, consuming the forest and low vegetation, the heat will become intense. Your clothing may become so hot you want to yank them off, your hair may singe, hair on your arms will singe, it will be terrifying. But… remain hunkered down in your ditch. If the fire is that intense all around you there is no escape, no safe path to run to safety.

  • Don’t immediately get up and try to run away as the fire passes you. That will be your first instinct, but the fire may reverse direction which will happen if the wind reverses direction. Wait as long as you can to insure the fire is moving away then find a path away from the blaze remembering to stay in the “Black” if possible.

Curiosity Killed the Cat:

After it is totally safe, it’s quite normal for people to want to view devastation. I’m sure there is a clinical name for it, but I’ll call it curiosity. A forest devastated by fire is something to see as it holds an Apocalyptic feeling of how the end of the earth will look like.


Stunned but in danger

It will take years, perhaps decades for the environment to become stable again and this poses a danger for gawkers in the area. Damaged standing trees are of particular danger as dead limbs, some huge and deadly, could fall at any time. Burned out root systems can be precarious hiding invisible holes a hiker could step in and become severely injured. One must remember vegetation holds the ground in place, without it mud-slides, rock-slides and flash floods become dangerous and more possible.

Learn Not to Die in a Forest Fire While at Home:

We’ve talked about being trapped or encountering a fire while hiking or otherwise being outside. Probably 95% of the people exposed to the dangers of an out of control forest fire will be at home as the infernal approaches. Let’s look at what to do.

  1. Take Action Immediately! The fire won’t wait on your timetable …it has its own

  2. Quickly review your evacuation checklist. In the panic it is easy to overlook a pet.

  3. Ensure your emergency supply kit is still in your vehicle. Did dad take it out to put his golf clubs in the trunk and forget to put it back.

  4. Quickly check what you and your children are wearing. If it’s summer the kids will most likely be wearing shorts and flip-flops. Change clothing to long pants, long sleeve shirts and boots. A cap, dry rag or goggles will help protect against flying hot embers.

  5. Some may argue this point but … leave as soon as evacuation is recommended by fire officials. These professionals do not take an evacuation notice lightly, they want to help you avoid being caught in the fire, smoke or road congestion. Additionally it helps them do their job by keeping roads clear and not having to concern themselves with you. Besides, in the event the forest fire travels too quickly they may not be able to reach you for a mandatory evacuation order.

  6. Law enforcement agencies are typically responsible for enforcing evacuation as they have access to the latest fire location, winds, terrain, closed routes, etc. Follow their directions immediately. You may not be in a hurry, but the family with four kids behind you want to get away, now.

  7. You may be directed to a temporary shelter or assembly area.

Returning Home:

Do not attempt to return home until fire officials determine it’s safe. They know your anxiety and will clear access as soon as they know its safe.

Unless you have experienced the agony of losing everything you have, whether by fire, tornado or other natural events, there is no way to express the emotions you’ll have. You can’t allow yourself to walk blindly into harm’s way. Assuming your residence has survived the flames.

  1. Be alert for downed power lines. A live power line several blocks away can kill you.

  2. Check propane tanks, regulators and supply lines before turning them on.

  3. Check your residence for any hidden embers or smoldering fire

  4. Check for unwanted animals, snakes for instance, that escaped to your house.

Learn not to die in a forest fire is no laughing matter. It can be one of the most terrifying experiences you’ll ever endure. Knowing what steps to take in different fire scenarios could very well save you and your family’s lives. Learn not to die in a forest fire and reread this article.

Brush Fire Along I-84

Brush Fire


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