Escape Routes and Smokey Skies: Tips for Hiking During Wildfire Season
In the Pacific Northwest, wildfire risk generally peaks during the hot and dry months of August and September. Unsurprisingly, these are also some of the most popular months for hikers to get out and enjoy our state’s beautiful trails. Before you head out on a hike during peak wildfire season, hikers and backpackers need to keep the possibility of fire in mind and have a plan for what to do if you encounter signs of a fire in the backcountry.
plan before you go
Take a tip from the pros. Firefighters don't tackle a wildfire until escape routes and safety zones have been identified and everyone knows how to reach them. This is a good approach for hikers to take during fire season. In fact, the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest recommends hikers use this strategy.
- Check conditions. Checking trail, road and weather conditions are best practices for any day hike or backpacking trip. Use the tips below to consider wildfires in your conditions checks.
- Size up the scene. Your favorite trail or camping spot may only have one-way access. Ask yourself where you will go if a fire should block the way out. How can you plan for your own safety? Like experienced firefighters, having a plan, escape routes, and safety zones could pay off during an emergency.
- Mark up a map. The best way to find out about the routes in, out, and around a specific area is to get a good map. Before you leave for your trip, study the map and mark in red all routes out (escape routes) and safety zones (an area where a person could find adequate refuge from danger). Pay attention to where the largest bodies of water are close to the trails you'll be hiking.
Know where not to go
Before you head out in the heat of summer, look into the fire danger for the area you’re visiting and where any active fires may be burning.
- Check official sources like inciweb.nwcg.gov for easy-to-use interactive maps and information on active wildfires across the country or the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR) fire account on twitter (@waDNR_fire) for news on local firefighting efforts.
- Consult the Hike Finder Map and Hiking Guide. During wildfire season, hikers can view a wildfire overlay on the WTA Hike Finder Map. If a trail is closed because of a fire, look for a red alert indicating that they are inaccessible. You can see these in both the list view of the Hiking Guide, and on individual entries.
- Talk to the land manager. Many national forests will list fire danger ratings on their websites, ranging from low to extreme, and will have details on any pertinent fire-related closures (including information on prescribed burns). If you ever have a question about hiking in a region with an active wildfire, you can also contact or visit a ranger station directly. Not sure which ranger to call for the trail you want to hike? Most of our Hiking Guide entries list the land manager under the Map and Directions.
- Check the forecast. Even if there isn't a current fire, it's helpful to know what the upcoming weather holds. Thunderstorms and wind can be dangerous in hot, dry conditions. Weather forecasts for a specific trailhead can also be found on our Hiking Guide entries under the Map and Directions.
Consider Air Quality
Wildfires themselves pose an obvious risk to hikers, but the smoke those wildfires emit adds an extra danger to consider. Wildfire smoke can travel great distances — large-scale fires in neighboring states (even as far as California and Montana) can have detrimental effects on air quality here in Washington.
Even if there isn’t an active fire in the area you plan on visiting, it might still be worth checking the air quality where you’re going to hike as the season heats up, especially if you are sensitive to smoke. Washington’s Department of Ecology issues daily updates on air quality around the state using a scale ranging from good to hazardous. They’ve even added a 5-day smoke forecast this year, so you’ll be able to research ahead of time and plan accordingly.
ENcountering Fire on Trail
You're hiking and spot or smell smoke. What do you do?
You leave. Fires are powerful forces and they can move fast and unpredictably based on the terrain, wind and weather. If you smell smoke you can't trace back to a nearby campfire, or if you spy a column of smoke, leave immediately — even if it means cutting your trip short or leaving some gear behind. Lost gear can be replaced, lost lives cannot.
Once you make it safely away from the trail and back into cell service, you can report what you saw or smelled by calling DNR at 800-562-6010.