Wildfires: How to Travel Safely as the Climate Changes


Climate change is warming up the spring, lengthening the summer, and drying out soil and vegetation, leading to more frequent, destructive wildfires. This year alone, wildfires have left at least 98 dead on Maui, forced mass evacuations from several Greek islands, and raged across Canada, forcing an entire city to evacuate and fouling the air across North America. If you’re traveling in this environment — especially if you’re planning a trip to the outdoors — how can you stay safe? Here’s how to prepare yourself, and what to do in case of an emergency.

In years past, travelers could plan around “fire season,” steering clear of the hottest, driest times of year. But — as evidenced by the Marshall Fire, which ignited Dec. 30, 2021, then burned more than 1,000 homes near Denver — when it comes to fire, season doesn’t really matter anymore.

What matters is weather. Heat, drought, low humidity and wind can signal fire danger, so the National Weather Service checks for these conditions year-round and issues red-flag warnings for places that are at high risk.

No matter the season, watch for those warnings. Lori Moore-Merrell, the United States fire administrator, whose agency supports and strengthens fire and emergency medical services, also recommends chatting with a local authority — for instance, a park ranger or a firefighter — “to kind of just say, ‘What’s going on today? What are you hearing? What are the conditions?’” That will help you gauge the risk level, and know what to monitor.

Check out the National Interagency Fire Center’s National Incident Map, FireWeatherAvalanche.org and CalTopo.com for real-time fire maps. You may also want to follow the social media accounts of the cities, counties and parks you’ll be visiting, as these accounts often deliver real-time information.

Your device could save your life in a wildfire, but not if its battery is dead. Ensure yours works when you need it by bringing a charger that doesn’t need a wall or a car socket, such as one powered by the sun.

Both FEMA and the American Red Cross have free apps that you can customize to receive location-specific alerts. On the Red Cross app, there’s also an option to enable critical notifications to sound, even when the phone is on silent or in Do Not Disturb mode.

Candice Stevenson, a fire communication and education specialist for the National Park Service, advises signing up for emergency alerts for the area you’re visiting. These alerts might be shared via text, email or phone call, depending on where you’re traveling. “Sometimes,” she wrote in an email, “a text or alert can still work while in poor cell coverage.”

Another tool for low- or no-service areas is What3Words. The free app works by dividing the world into roughly 10-by-10-foot squares and assigning a unique three-word code to each square. (The geocode for the trailhead for the path leading to the top of Half Dome, in Yosemite National Park, for instance, is songbird.contraband.partly.) Because the service uses satellites, your phone can receive the three-word address corresponding to your location even without internet or cell service, which can help emergency workers find you when you do make contact with them.

“I can’t tell you how many times people will call and say, ‘I’m on fill-in-the-blank lake,’” said Alex Luscutoff, the deputy chief of law enforcement and emergency services for California State Parks. “When we get that information as first responders, sometimes it’s very difficult to distinguish what particular area of the park they are located.”

Use of the service is catching on. Besides the California State Parks, emergency responders in and around places like Austin, Texas; Niagara Falls, Ontario; Tucson, Ariz.; Los Angeles, Nashville and London have also adopted the app.

Phones are powerful tools, but they can also break, freeze up or get dropped in lakes.

Don’t underestimate the value of paper maps. Study them before you depart to familiarize yourself with your destination, and to find several evacuation routes. Then, keep those (preferably waterproof) maps handy.

Sherri McKinney, a national representative for the American Red Cross, also recommends bringing a lightweight hand-cranked weather radio, especially for backcountry travel, to listen for weather information and emergency announcements. A hand-cranked radio “can be the difference between life and death,” she said.

Once a fire starts, time is limited. “Fire is fast,” Dr. Moore-Merrell said. “It is fast when it is coupled with hurricane, gale-force winds as we saw in Maui; it is fast if it happens in your home.”

That means it’s critical to know your evacuation route before a fire starts. When you reach your destination for the night, Dr. Moore-Merrell said, look for exits, stairwells and any other escape routes. Better yet, Ms. McKinney advised, once you arrive and drop your bags, “take another drive after you’re checked in so that you can see what the exit route is, and practice that evacuation route.”

Above all, if and when you’re told to evacuate, don’t wait — get out.

Maybe you’re too far from your car to reach it. Maybe you’re too deep in the backcountry to reach a road. Maybe the fire is blocking your only escape route.

If, for any reason, you cannot evacuate, look for a safety zone: a place where you could survive a wildfire and await help.

Ms. Stevenson of the National Park Service wrote that what constitutes a safety zone depends on a fire’s severity: “The larger the flame heights and the faster the wind speed, the larger the safety zone would need to be.”

If you’re on a hill, Drew Leemon, the risk management director for the National Outdoor Leadership School, advises going downhill. “Heat rises, so it’s going to go up the side of a valley faster than you can run,” he said.

Mr. Leemon also suggests heading for a body of water, ideally one deep enough to submerge yourself, if there is one nearby.

Fire needs fuel, so get away from as much fuel as you can. If you’re in the forest, he said, go to a meadow. Better yet, run to a place with very little vegetation, like a boulder field or a rocky area. If you’re in immediate danger, Mr. Leemon said, you can head into “the black” — the area that has already burned. That scorched zone presents its own risks — embers, hot ground and trees that might fall — but there is also much less left to burn there.


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