How to Deal with Wildfire on the Pacific Crest Trail

According to scientists, wildfires will be more common in the future. With this in mind, thruhikers should be educated on the basics of how to deal with wildfire on the Pacific Crest Trail.

When I was hiking the Pacific Crest Trail this year, we were extremely lucky with the absence and location of wildfires. Needless to say, these fires can result in fire closures and having to skip sections of trail. At the same time and most importantly, they are extremely dangerous and a real threat to the safety of thruhikers on the Pacific Crest Trail when they happen.

The Rise of Wildfires in the Pacific Crest Trail

PCT Fireman

As already mentioned, scientists are predicting that more than ten states will experience a 500 percent increase in wildlife. For the most part, this is due to environmental factors and wildfire is now set to become part of daily life in the western states.

Scott McClean has 18 years experience as a wildland firefighter and is now tasked with leading the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. In recent comments, the Deputy Chief said that he was expecting more than 700 wildland fires in California next year and outlined the correct procedure for thruhikers who might be caught in a wildfire situation.

Prepare for the Unexpected

Before you hot the trail, you should be fully aware of the conditions that lie ahead. Scott McLean recommends that thruhikers check InciWeb which maps out wildfires across the United States. As you may know, the PCTA website is also a good source of information for fire closures on the Pacific Crest Trail.

At the same time, hikers should also have a reliable GPS system and maps to navigate alternate trails or even off-trail should the situation arise. Further, having a Garmin InReach or SPOT device is essential.

What to Do If You Encounter a Wildfire

Scott McLean advises that hikers should first establish the wind direction which should be visible based on the direction of the smoke:

Smoke Rising Upward – In an instance where smoke is rising straight up, this indicates that there is no wind which is a good sign as it reduces the ability of a wildfire to spread.

Smoke Scattered on the Horizon – If the smoke is moving in one direction on the horizon, this means that the fire will spread quickly. Also, this should tell you which direction the fire will move.

McClean also makes it clear that hikers should always move downhill. “Fires burn uphill. It’s preheating the vegetation in front of it, so your best bet is down low. Travel upwind and downhill on dirt roads or streambeds with little vegetation. Stay away from canyons and draws, which can work to amplify a fire. Keep your distance, and maneuver around the flames as fast as possible.”

If Caught in a Wildfire on the Pacific Crest Trail

Fire on the PCT

If you get caught in the midst of a wildfire on the Pacific Crest Trail, the safest place to be is within an area that has already burned. You can tell such areas as they are mostly black and although uncomfortably hot or dry, this is often the best place to wait until the fire has subsided or past.

You cannot outrun a fire and McLean advises that “waiting it out” is usually the best option. But what else should you do in a wildfire situation?

Lay down on your stomach with your feet pointed toward the fire. Dig a hole and stick your face in it to avoid breathing in smoke. If you have a handkerchief, put that over your face as well. Hunker down, and the fire might change directions. It also might burn around you. But stay there for a good amount of time so there is no chance of it coming back at you. If the fire passes around you, find a way out behind the path of the blaze, sticking to the black whenever possible. – Scott McLean

Hiking in Burn Areas and Charred Forests

Finally, you are likely to encounter burn areas on the Pacific Crest Trail. Watch out for fragile trees and certainly try not to camp beneath anything that looks unstable. If you can, try to exit these areas before camping and if raining, watch out for mudslides in the area.

As you can see, common sense is needed but thruhikers should also be familiar with the best course of action to take in a wildfire situation. Either way, you should always avoid taking risks and take responsibility for keeping up to date with the conditions ahead on the Pacific Crest Trail.