On Labor Day weekend last year, Oregon’s backcountry ignited, the night sky glowing red from flames. Peter Ames Carlin, his wife, and their three children were among 176 hikers who were surrounded by a wildfire on the Eagle Creek Trail, a short jaunt from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (NSA). As the blaze blocked a safe exit to the north, to the south, the Indian Creek Fire—which had been smoldering for months—reawakened and threatened to trap the hikers amid steep canyons.
“I was mostly in a stage of intense denial. We were on an easy day hike on a familiar trail we had hiked probably a dozen times over the years,” says Carlin, who lives in Portland. “But it was also a moment of you either walk or die. So you just go.” Smoke choked the air while embers showered down hell upon them, starting spot fires all over the forest. Most people were prepared only for a short day outside, wearing swimsuits or flip-flops and carrying nothing more than a bottle of water.
The ordeal had started just a few hours earlier, when a 15-year-old boy threw a firecracker into a nearby ravine. The dry conditions were ripe for a blaze—the National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a red flag warning for dry, unstable conditions that day. By late afternoon, roughly 200 acres had burned while Carlin and 147 other hikers were stranded near a popular swimming hole at Punch Bowl Falls. The massive group spent the night walking, hoping to make it out alive before flames consumed the footpath.
“That night, my family crashed in the dirt, all huddled together in a big pile, cuddling for warmth,” Carlin says. “It was cold and miserable—it was really bad. But it could’ve ended a lot worse.”
No deaths were reported that night or throughout the duration of the Eagle Creek Fire. It was, by all measures, a miraculous outcome. The blaze ended up destroying close to 50,000 acres before it was contained on November 30, costing nearly $40 million.
The warnings from the NWS that day prompted the Forest Service to station a ranger near the Eagle Creek Trailhead to educate hikers on the risks. Despite this, people still set out on the trail completely unprepared, says Rachel Pawlitz, a spokesperson for the Columbia River Gorge NSA. “People hike with nothing but flip-flops, a towel, and no water and no food. We see it time and time again that people aren’t prepared.” While no one could’ve anticipated the outbreak of the Eagle Creek Fire, Pawlitz says a lot can be taken away from how everything unfolded, especially since over the next 20 years, scientists predict that up to 11 states will see the average annual area burned increase by 500 percent due to environmental factors like drought. The reality is that the West’s future includes fires as part of daily life, and those who recreate outdoors will have to know how to deal with them.
“We’re expecting over 700 wildland fires [in California] this year, and that’s well more than last year,” says Deputy Chief Scott McLean with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, who has spent 18 years as a wildland firefighter in remote sections of Butte County. “The public needs to be aware of fire safety—that’s part of backpacking and hiking and nature nowadays. People need to pay attention to their surroundings and provide for their own safety while being responsible in a forest.”
Before your next hike in the woods, here are a few helpful strategies if you find yourself staring at flames and rising smoke.
Before You Leave
Before hitting the trail, check online for current conditions. McLean recommends InciWeb, a map displaying where fires are burning on forests in the United States. “Check in at the ranger station, too,” he says. “Look to see if there is a fire nearby or any trail closures that are in effect. Check the weather conditions, and find out the wind direction.”
Be sure to pack the ten essentials to aid in navigation. Instead of synthetic clothes, McLean advises wearing wool. When exposed to the high heat of fires, synthetics “have a tendency to melt to your body,” he says.
If You Spot a Fire…
McLean says to decipher the wind direction by analyzing the smoke. If the smoke is going straight up, that means there’s little to no wind—a good sign. But if you see it scattered about the horizon in one direction, that means the blaze will spread rapidly. It also tells you where the fire is heading.
“Fires burn uphill,” McLean says. “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 You Get Caught in a Fire…
If you find yourself in an active fire zone, McLean says the safest place is “in the black,” meaning an area that has already burned. If you can find that, hold tight until the danger has passed. “It’s going to be uncomfortable, dry, and hot, but it’s one of the safest areas to be,” he says.
With no other escape options, outrunning the impending inferno is futile—you have to prepare to wait it out. McLean says to find a depression in the topography with no vegetation, such as a roadway with a ditch or a streambed. “Lay down on your stomach with your feet pointed toward the fire,” he says. “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.”
As the fire begins to consume the forest around you, McLean says it’s important to stay there. “Hunker down, and the fire might change directions,” he says. “It also might burn around you. But stay there for a good amount of time so there’s 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.
Take Care When Hiking in Charred Forests
The acreage of charred forest in America grows each year, and if a fire is intense enough, it can take years before the environment is stable again. Perhaps the biggest hazards in these areas are damaged trees. “Trees or limbs could drop at any time,” McLean says, “so give distance between you and those trees.” Even burned-out root systems can be precarious, trapping hikers in nearly invisible holes beneath them. When the vegetation is burned from the environment, mud- and rockslides are more common, especially when it’s raining. Even water sources can be less reliable after a fire has ravaged a forest.