How to enjoy nature safely during wildfire season by Rebecca Hosley for Hike it Baby

When I was a teenager, the Hayman Fire of 2002 broke out dangerously close to my hometown of Colorado Springs. I remember seeing flames just over the ridge near my parents’ home and dealing with poor air quality from the smoke for weeks. The fire ended up burning for around 40 days, destroying over 138,000 acres and 133 homes, and causing six human deaths (including five firefighters).

Hundreds of firefighters put their lives on the line to fight this fire and prevent further damage and loss of life. I remember thinking, “How could this happen?” The answer came shortly after: it was ignited through arson. A forest technician with the U.S. Forest Service supposedly started a campfire during a total burn ban and lit a letter on fire. Somehow embers from this fire ignited vegetation in the area and the rest is history.

Ten years later, another human-caused wildfire, the Waldo Canyon fire, broke out in town. This time it came so close that my parents were evacuated, and many people had to leave the area due to extremely poor air quality from the smoke. While my parents’ home was saved, 346 others were not.

Although this may sound shocking, it’s not as rare as one would think. According to research, over the past few decades, a staggering 84% of wildfires were caused by humans. In addition, human-caused wildfires have tripled the length of the fire season and covered an area seven times greater than that of lightning-caused fires. While a portion of these fires are set on purpose, the majority are set on accident via unattended campfires, burning debris, equipment use, etc.

How can we do our part to prevent fires while also enjoying fun outdoor activities like camping? I consulted an expert, my friend and firefighter, Mike Pelka, for tips on keeping our families safe while enjoying the outdoors this summer. (Read my interview with him about the science behind wildfires here.)

How can we prevent unnecessary wildfires from erupting, especially when camping or hiking?

Like Smokey says, “Only you, can prevent Forest Fires.” There is only one completely natural cause for fire: lightening. All other ignitions are human-caused in some way. Unattended campfires or incomplete extinguishment of campfires tend to be a leading cause. Playing with matches, lighters or other flammable materials is another hazard. Simply put, use common sense and use due regard.

Campfires should be monitored at all times and kept under control. Always have some source of extinguishment, i.e., water or a shovel to throw dirt on. Before leaving a campfire, verify it is out. One of the best ways that firefighters use to ensure a fire is out is “cold trailing,” which is literally putting your bare hand in the ground to verify there is no heat. Obviously, this should be a parental duty. If it’s still smoking, there are embers still glowing or you wouldn’t want to risk putting your hand in it, then it’s not all the way out. Also, know and follow any fire restrictions that may be in place and obtain any permits necessary from officials.

Do you have any suggestions for keeping curious kiddos safe around the campfire while camping?

Remember that while campfires are enjoyable and part of the experience, things can change quickly. Fire is not to be played with and can cause serious bodily injury and death quickly. Here are some tips for keeping your family safe around the campfire:

  1. Kids should always be monitored around fire.
  2. Keep flammable objects far away and out of reach.
  3. Do not allow kids to throw things in the fire or play with sticks near the fire.
  4. Keep bare ground around the campfire at all times to reduce the chance of a stray ember ignition.
  5. If the fire is getting too large or the wind is creating an ember cast, reduce or extinguish the fire.

Check out this article for more information on family safety around the campfire or bonfire. And here is a fun activity for teaching children about campfire construction and safety.

How to enjoy nature safely during wildfire season by Rebecca Hosley for Hike it Baby

At what point is it unsafe to hike during wildfire season?

There’s nothing inherently unsafe about hiking during wildfire season. With that said, there are some things to consider. Air quality can be one factor. Smoke from large fires can be carried by winds to states far away and cause respiratory issues or exacerbate existing respiratory conditions. Depending on atmospheric conditions, smoke may stay high in the air, or it may sink to the ground.

Know the current conditions before you go hiking. Look up information on any fires that may be burning in proximity to your planned trip. Find out if there are any evacuations in proximity to that area. Do not go into a questionable area. Many resources go into fighting wildfires, so hiking near fires or even traveling through these areas can further complicate and distract firefighters from fighting the fire. Other considerations are fairly obvious; environmental considerations are key. Hot, dry and windy days are the hallmark of wildfire season.

If you are hiking in these climates, be sure that you are well prepared for your trip, including possible emergency situations that may occur. Use sunscreen and dress appropriately. Wear comfortable boots and clean socks to prevent blisters. Bring any medication you may need for existing medical conditions or for an allergic reaction (Epipen). Bring plenty of food and snacks and, most importantly, bring plenty of water. Remember that proper hydration can take days, so drink plenty of water at home leading up to a trip.

Looking for ways to stay active and nature-focused when you can’t get outside? Check out these articles for activities you can do when it’s too hot to go outside and alternatives for times when it’s too cold to go outside.

How do you practice Fire Safety? Let us know in the comments below!

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Photos by Arika Bauer and Rebecca Hosley.

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