Surviving a Forest Fire
Here in Colorado it almost seems like we went from winter straight to summer; what little we had of spring was quickly gone and replaced by consecutive days of temperatures in the high 90’s (we set a record today at 100) and no moisture. What that means here is fire season is upon us, and there are currently three wild fires going on as I write this, one of them less than 50 miles from my home. It’s hard to believe that just last weekend I was camping in a heavily forested area in the mountains, and today we have three fires going on. Because of that, I thought it would be a good idea to write some tips on how to survive a forest fire.
Obviously the first thing you can do is be careful if you have a camp fire, and don’t let it get out of control. Here in Colorado once the fires start, a fire ban goes into effect, as it did today in the county where I live. When it is hot and dry like it is here today, a camp fire can easily get out of hand and ignite a devastating forest fire. This message is especially for the younger outdoors people (like my son Kyle) who like to build large bon fires; don’t do it! All it takes is a swift gust of wind and embers from the fire can be blown onto dry tinder and ignite a fire. If this happens, try your best to smother the fire before it gets out of control. Use water, dirt, or heavy clothing to attempt to put out a fire before it spreads.
If a fire has started in the forest and is coming your way there are several things you can do to increase your chances of survival. The first sign you will detect if a fire is headed your way is the smell of smoke, and it won’t smell like a normal campfire. A forest fire is not only burning dead wood, but also grass, live wood, and green leaves or pine needles, and it will produce a smell of smoke that is decidedly different than your normal campfire. If it is a large fire you will hear the flames before you see them. You may also notice abnormal behavior from animals, such as animals running through the forest or large numbers of birds flying away.
The first thing you should do is determine which way the wind is blowing. In most cases the wind will be pushing a fire towards you, but not always. The heat of the flames and the terrain can cause the air to swirl around a large fire, but the smoke higher up from the ground will generally tell you which way the wind is blowing. If the wind is blowing towards the fire, head INTO the wind.
If you find yourself caught in an area where a fire is raging and it is far too late to attempt to put it out, do not react by immediately running away unless the fire is so close that there is no other choice. Try to remain calm and assess the situation. Keep whatever clothes on you are wearing and grab other clothing if you have time. If you have an axe or shovel or tarp, grab them too. Clothing can protect you from the radiant heat of a fire, especially if you dampen it with water. Keep in mind though that wet clothes will slow down your movements, so don’t forget that when you are attempting to escape, but keep the clothes on.
Once you determine the direction of the wind, look for an escape route. Look for any natural swath through the trees that would cause the flames on the ground to stop. It is important to know that in very large fires the flames will jump across large open areas through the canopy of the trees, but an opening on the ground can provide you some safety, especially if there are large outcroppings of rocks you can get into. A large boulder field is an ideal place to take shelter, and a river or lake are the best options. Be aware that if you take shelter in water, hypothermia is always a risk, but I would rather take that risk over burning up in a fire any day. But if you take shelter in a lake, stay in a place where you can stand up, don’t try to tread water for a long period of time in a cold lake.
If the wind is blowing towards you from the same direction as the fire, that means the fire is surely moving your way, and moving faster than the normal speed of burning fuel. If at all possible, avoid running uphill as flames travel faster going uphill, while you will run slower going uphill.
If you can see the end of the fire line, try to find a route that will get you around the fire, but only do so carefully as this can be a risky escape option. If it is apparent that you are not going to be able to skirt around the fire or out run it, take refuge in a large clearing, a water source, a deep ravine, or a gully. A deep ravine or gully can provide good shelter, especially if you have a shovel and a tarp; you can dig out a depression against the wall of the ravine or gully that is nearest the fire, dump the dirt onto the tarp, and then cover yourself up with the dirt-covered tarp.
If you are in a vehicle, try to drive away from the fire, over whatever terrain you think your vehicle can handle. Now is not the time to worry about denting, scratching, or otherwise damaging your vehicle, but be smart about it at the same time. If you are stranded in your vehicle and surrounded by a large fire, you are better off staying in the vehicle as long as it is not a convertible. Roll up the windows, turn off any ventilation that would bring outside air into the vehicle, and hope your gas tank doesn’t blow up. I know that sounds drastic, but your chances of surviving are actually better than trying to run through a large fire. People have survived a forest fire by staying in their vehicle until the glass windows melted, by that time the fire had moved on. If they had panicked and run into the fire, they would have died.
The final technique is just that, running into the fire. This is impossible if the fire is very large and the flames are intense, but if you can see an area of the fire that isn’t too deep with a burned out area on the other side, it may be an option, especially if the flames are in a grassy area which will burn up quickly. If you chose this option, cover as much exposed skin and hair as possible, and dampen yourself if you have water. Avoid areas of dense brush as those areas will burn with great intensity. Use a piece of cloth to cover your nose and mouth, pick your spot to break through the flames, take a deep breath, and then go for it without hesitation.
I’ve seen several forest fires in my time in the outdoors, and luckily I have never been caught in one. One time I was standing in the White River fishing when a fire reached the northern bank of the river while I stood there and watched it 30 feet away, there was nothing else I could do. Forest fires happen every year, we actually need them to happen to clear the forests, but people also die from them every year, and many times those deaths can be prevented if you know what to do.