What to do if you encounter smoke or fire on the trail

Wildfire knows no boundaries. Not state, federal or private. Not wilderness or trail. As hotter, drier weather conditions return for summer in Washington, wildfire is an unfortunate inevitability.  

Wildfire touches more parts of our lives than ever before and preparedness extends beyond clearing brush around your home. What happens when wildfire reaches our favorite recreation areas? Do you know what do you do if you encounter smoke or fire while out on the trail?

Before you head out for summer adventures, use this guide to ensure your trip is fun and safe.

Before your trip

Washington Department of Natural Resources (DNR) has several resources you can use during wildfire season to stay up-to-date on what is happening on the landscape. 

Before you load your pack and head out check fire conditions and DNR Wildfire Twitter alerts for emergency information in the area you plan to visit. There are a few key things you want to know before you go:

  • Are there fire closures in the area or nearby where you plan to visit? Always obey these closures for your safety and the safety of our fire crews.
  • What are the weather advisories? Look out for red flag warnings — low humidity, windy, and hot conditions — that indicate severe fire danger.
  • Are there campfire bans or restrictions? These can apply to specific locations, elevations, counties, and regions. If you’re unsure, call the region office in the area you plan to visit and ask. If there aren’t campfire restrictions, brush up on how to properly extinguish your campfire

Packing for your trip

If you determine the place you are planning to visit is safe, pack your bags with wildfire preparedness in mind. Hot, dry summers mean wildfires can spark at any time across the state. While you already know you should never hit the trail without the 10 Essentials, your maps and water are more critical than ever.

Make sure you have physical maps that display the terrain of the area you are visiting so you can easily navigate the landscape should fire and smoke divert you from the trail. Your phone isn’t always a reliable resource in the backcountry.

Pack a little more water than usual. Wildfire conditions are likely to leave you thirsty, especially if an emergency arises and you are away from water sources longer than anticipated.

If you own colorful gear, now is the time to pack it. In case of emergency, colorful gear will be easier for fire crews to spot you from the ground or the air.

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If you see a smoke column on the trail

If you are out on the trail and see a smoke column or dense smoke in the distance, don’t ignore it. You need to act.

If you don’t have cell reception, assess the situation. Are you in the forest? On a ridge? In a saddle between peaks? In a chute? Is it windy? These are dangerous scenarios as fire can move quickly across these types of terrain. Don’t panic, but get moving. Observe which direction the smoke is flowing and head in the opposite direction. Keep an eye on the conditions. Shifting winds can change the fire’s direction of travel in a snap.

If the smoke and fire are not blocking your exit, the safest thing you can do is turn around, head back to your car, and drive to safety. Call 911 or DNR wildfire dispatchers at 800-562-6010 as soon as you regain cell reception.

If you see fire on the trail

Situational awareness is paramount.

While you are on the trail, make mental notes of any bodies of water, large swaths of clean, exposed rock, and open areas with little vegetation that you pass. Though it is unlikely that you will find yourself caught in extreme fire danger if you followed the above tips before you set out, wildfire is unpredictable. These areas can offer potential refuge in extremely dire situations.

If you get caught in an area where you can see the actual fire, try to run in the opposite direction. If that is not possible, find the best refuge you can. You are looking for rock fields with minimal brush, green meadows with minimal brush, and bodies of water with objects you can behind to protect yourself from radiant heat. If you are on a ridge and see fire below you, find refuge on the opposite side of the ridge. Fire typically travels upslope.

Other things to keep in mind

Breathing in smoke is unhealthy. Even if there isn’t an active fire burning near the area you would like to visit, wildfire smoke often blankets the state throughout the summer. Breathing in wildfire smoke can cause you to have itchy eyes, a sore throat, runny nose and shortness of breath, and chest pains in more extreme circumstances. Sensitive groups like children, older people, and people with asthma are especially susceptible.

You can lessen your chances of suffering from the adverse effects of wildfire smoke by checking local air quality reports before you head outdoors. It is best to avoid exerting yourself, i.e. doing activities that cause you to breathe deeper and harder, in areas with poor air quality.

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Fire safety and awareness tools

Fire danger by county

DNR Wildfire Twitter updates

Incident Information System (InciWeb)

Information on wildfires

How to prepare for a wildfire

Living with fire