This post is the first in a series looking at what to do in a potential natural disaster on the trail. The scope of a ‘natural disaster' is pretty broad so I am going to work my way through this, one ‘natural disaster' at a time, if that makes sense.
Thankfully I have never been caught in any type of natural disaster while out hiking on the trail. Broadly speaking, good planning should keep you safe most of the time. However, sometimes it is possible to enter an area on your hiking adventures that is more prone to a disaster than others.
All the best planning in the world won't prevent a disaster from happening and so if you're unlucky enough, you just have to deal with the situation as best as you can.
Today, I wanted to start with a natural disaster that is pretty common all over the globe, Forest Fires.
What is a Forest Fire?
OK, well that is really kind of asking the obvious, it is of course a fire in a forest 🙂 However, it is worth thinking about what kind of things lend themselves to good conditions for a forest fire to occur.
Forest fires can be started both by nature and by humans. They can also be started accidentally and on purpose. Let's take a look at each of these one after another.
Forest fires started by nature probably can't really be termed as accidental as such. Similarly, a naturally occurring fire can't be classed as intentional either. Who knows what the intentions of Mother Nature are 🙂
However, at a bit of a stretch, they could be looked on as kind of accidental in terms of the expectations of a hiker. That is, a hiker wouldn't intentionally walk into a tinder box that was likely to be sparked any time soon, aka a disaster waiting to happen.
An example of where nature starts a Forest fire could be something like a lightening strike on a very dry forest floor. Another example could be the heat of the midday sun in a very arid area in a time of drought, which might be enough to get a flame going. Once a fire starts, it will keep on burning and spread, no pun intended, like wildfire in those types of conditions.
When it comes to Forest Fires being started by humans, they do fall into both categories of intentional and unintentional.
Fires can often be intentionally started by forest management services. This is done to remove a whole patch of forest and is set up in a controlled manner. Usually, you would expect a lot of signs and safety measures taken before this was ever started, so as to prevent anyone from wandering into it by accident.
On the other side of the scale, in terms of being in control, another example of intentional fire starting by humans, could be arson. There is no shortage of idiots in the world and yes, they have been known to do dumb things both intentionally and unintentionally.
My Closest Forest Fire Experience
I mentioned above that I have never actually been caught, while out hiking, in a natural disaster. However, to help illustrate the last point above, I was hiking very close to one many years back.
I was in Southern Spain in mid summer, it can get seriously hot there, and the particular forest area we were in was as described above, a tinderbox. It hadn't rained in weeks and there were real fears that a fire could be started by the intense heat alone never mind by people.
There was of course a ban on any open flames in the area. There were permanent barbecues set up in amenity areas for use during the Summer by people visiting the area. However, during this time, they were not to be used as the authorities were, logically, concerned about a forest fire starting.
Yep, you guessed it, sure enough a bunch of teenagers thought it would be a good idea to have a barbecue. Some sparks from the barbecue landed on the ground and baddabing, a massive forest fire was put into motion.
Now, to get across the damage that was caused by this fire, the economic damage in terms of cleanup ran into the many millions. However, even sadder, many people lost their lives, including firemen who were bravely trying to put this fire out when it eventually had evolved into an inferno!
On the day it started, we happened to be out hiking but about thirty miles away from the start of it. While the fire was kicking off, we were finishing up. So we were already on our way, leaving the area while it was just starting so we were in safety when we learned about it.
We did quickly see plumes of smoke developing in the distance though. To again illustrate how serious this fire became, whole towns had to be evacuated for fear of getting caught in it and it lasted for days. No fooling around for sure!
What to Look out for
First and foremost, do your homework and check if the area you plan to hike in is prone to forest fires at the time of year you're visiting. Normally, in managed areas, there will usually be signs, like the one below, warning about the level of wildfire danger if it is common.
However, even if it is not common in an area, don't be fooled into complacency as any forest area can spark up given the right make-up and conditions. For example, a forested area populated with conifers which is experiencing a long period of drought will, after many weeks, become much more prone to catching fire.
Similarly, if the forest floor has lot's of dead wood on it, think dead branches and twigs, it is perfect kindling for a fire to get going. If there happens to be lots of bush close by, then again you have a recipe for a potential forest fire and given those factors and conditions, it will spread very quickly.
What to do in a Forest Fire?
Sometimes, as with anything, you might just get unlucky and get caught up in a forest fire while you're out hiking. If that is the case, below are a few tips to try and help you handle that type of situation as best as possible.
Note, these are only meant to be tips to get you thinking. It's worth consulting with the appropriate authorities in the areas you plan to go hiking in, to check if they are prone to forest fires. They may well have local guidelines and tips for safety specific to that particular area that could be a life saver.
- Leave the Area if you can. This is stating the obvious but it should be your first consideration. Can you get away from the fire? If so, get as far away from it as possible as quickly as possible. If possible, ascertain the direction of the wind, it could have a bearing on the direction the fire will travel. If you can't get away, look for suitable shelter to protect you until the fire passes.
- If there is a natural fire break, like a river or a road, cross to the other side of it. In forests close to where I hike regularly, there are man made fire breaks in the actual forests, a long line of space every so often, left between the trees. These are also marked on the maps I use so it is worth taking note of them if they happen to be listed on your map. The symbol should be in the map key.
- If caught in an oncoming forest fire, try and find an area where there is no vegetation that can catch fire. Think of a lake or very rocky area. The bigger the better as you will have more protection from smoke inhalation in the center of a wider area.
- Don't descend into a valley where a fire is already burning. This is a really bad idea and it is much better to have as many ridges as possible between you and any fire. It will all provide some level of defense between you and the fire and help keep it busy while you try and make a safe escape.
- If the forest fire is just over, be very careful if you need to walk through any area with burnt ground or smoldering vegetation. Burning branches can fall from trees or fire flashes from the ground can still very easily happen so be very careful and keep your wits about you.
- If you get caught in a fire and there is no way to get away, first find the barest patch of ground you can i.e. with nothing that will burn on it. Lie face down and try and cover yourself with soil. With your mouth face down, put it against the soil on the ground and breathe through the soil. This should provide some element of air filtering and the soil on your body and clothes should hopefully go someway to protecting you from catching fire. Sounds pretty gruesome!
So, that's it for today on the first possible natural disaster you could encounter on the trail, that I wanted to take a look at, namely, Forest Fires. As I noted above, they are not something to be trifled with.
If you happen to come across one on the trail, get as far away as you can, as quickly as possible. They move very fast and can engulf you in seconds, so stopping to take a happy snap for your buddies is a really bad idea!
As always, remember to do your homework if you're planning on hiking somewhere new, or where forest fires may be common. A little bit of planning could truly be the difference between life and death.
Keep your wits about you if you're out hiking in areas prone to forest fires in ripe conditions, and always have a plan for an escape route i.e. a fast way to get to safety if the need should arise. That's a good idea in general though, not just in terms of forest fires 😉 Also, be sure to look out for notices and check with other hikers or park officials in case they may know about something you don't.
I hope you found this post useful, if so, please share it around 🙂