With the fire season already well underway, and the recent incidences of the Monticello Fire near Lake Berryessa and the Butts Fire in Napa County, wildfire safety for hikers in the region is a topic that bears repeating.
Eric “Bam Bam” Barnett builds and maintain hiking trails on a regular basis very near the area affected by the Butts Fire.
“I like to talk to my crews on the trail, especially the trails I build because of the remoteness, about fire dangers,” Barnett says. He encourages wildfire safety and awareness.
Taking reasonable precautions during fire season before going out on a hike is the first best defense against getting trapped in a remote area with a wildfire on the way. Before heading out, check with the local fire services for notices about possible burns or risk concerns in the area. Take the time to not only plot the course of your hike, but also to plot escape routes.
Barnett says, “I am pretty good about checking for fire (information) online. I have a campfire permit and follow the guidelines. I keep an eye out for smoke, and stay aware of phone reception areas for emergency calls.”
Watching for signs of fire is another good defense against getting trapped by a wildfire. The acrid scent of smoke or seeing smoke are obvious indicators that a fire is nearby. If you see ash or sparks in the air, it means the fire is probably less than a mile away from you and you should take immediately measures to safely leave the area. Even small fires can loom large in just short amount of time, so don’t underestimate the danger.
“Getting away from the burn is more important than getting to your car at the trailhead,” Barnett says.
When trying to escape a fire, face the wind and move downhill whenever possible. Remember, heat rises, so fire will run up the side of a hill or embankment much quicker than it will move down it. Move along areas that won’t provide the fire with any additional tinder, such as wide dirt trails or fire breaks, paved roads, or rocky and gravelly areas; and avoid canyons and ravines where wind will provide fuel and movement for the flames.
Barnett warns, “Wildfires will catch a draw very similar to the draw in a fireplace or wood-burning stove along ravines.”
If you do find yourself trapped by the fire, and you can’t get out into a deep water source (such as a stream or lake) do not douse your clothes with water. If the fire reaches you, it can cause the water on your clothes to super-heat and turn to scalding steam.
Never try to outrun an oncoming wildfire; they can move as quickly as 14 miles per hour.
If the fire is going to overtake you, find a relatively clear space on the ground, pull up any weeds or brush you can, and create a shallow depression to lie in. The bigger the space you can clear for yourself, the better. Remove any synthetic clothing you’re wearing, as synthetics will burn quickly and melt onto your skin. Take off your backpack, but keep it nearby in case you need to use it as a heat shield. Then lie face-down in the depression with your feet in the direction of the fire.
As horrifying as being trapped by a wildfire may seem, keep in mind that if one does overtake you, it may pass over you in less than a minute or so. The heat will make it difficult to breathe, but try to keep yourself low to the ground and as calm as you can.
To avoid situations like this, however, it’s always best to arm yourself with as much information as you can before going out on the trail. Stay alert and stay safe.
— Tuleyome Tales is a monthly publication of Tuleyome, a conservation organization based in Woodland. Mary K. Hanson is an amateur naturalist and photographer. Eric “Bam Bam” Barnett is the trail development coordinator for Tuleyome Napa in Napa County. Tuleyome also thanks Susan Kocher, natural resources adviser for the UC Cooperative Extension program for her assistance with this article. For more information about Tuleyome, visit www.tuleyome.org.