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Surviving a Wildfire

Wildfires roar through thousands of acres of land each year, reaching temperatures well above 1,000 degrees. In some cases, there is absolutely nothing man or machine can do to stop the inferno—as was demonstrated by the 1988 fires in Yellowstone Park, which started in late summer and weren’t fully extinguished until winter came along to lend a hand.

Heaven help you if you’re ever caught in the path of something like that. But you don’t need to be in the thick of a fire to be in trouble. Violent updrafts created by the tremendous heat of a forest fire can carry live embers for miles, igniting secondary fires that can trap you in Mother Nature’s crematorium. 

If you’re ever faced with this situation, there are a few rules you need to follow.

How to Survive 

1. Get Out: You need to leave the area immediately. Do not wait around to see how things develop. If for some reason you can’t follow rule number one, it’s still possible to survive, but only if you’re very lucky and do everything else exactly right.  

2. Think Ahead: Because prevention is always better than cure, the first safety measure is to be aware of the dangers. Before you set out on a hunt or a fishing trip, check with the local Forest Ser­vice about the current fire hazard. When temperatures are high, humidity is low and the undergrowth is tinder-dry, it doesn’t take much for a wildfire to get started. If possible, arrange to take your trip in an area that is not presenting a high fire hazard.  

3. Plan Your Escape: The next step is to maintain situational awareness. At all times during your outing, be aware of your surroundings. Plan escape routes and identify safe zones—places where you could take shelter if a fire came roaring through. Safe zones include rivers and lakes (get in the water) and large level spots that are out in the open and well away from combustible material, such as thick vegetation, grass or even ground litter. Because heat rises, the safest zones are those that are downhill of the fire.  

4. Drop Everything: If you are trapped above a fire, drop everything and get out as fast as you can. Don’t try to save any of your gear: Gear is replaceable, your life is not. 

Look for an escape route that leads downhill, but do not follow canyons, chutes or draws, as these can act as blast-furnace chimneys that funnel deadly heat up the hill toward you. Avoid saddles—they act as natural funnels. 

5. Look for A Low Spot: If the flames are upon you, head for low ground—perhaps a ditch or the notch in a forest road—that will allow the superheated convective current to pass overhead. 

6. Brace For Heat: Protect your respiratory tract from the hot gases by facing away from the heat source while inhaling. If you can reach an area that has already burned out and where there is no residual fuel left to reignite, that might be a safe place. But expect the ambient temperature of the scorched earth, rocks and timber to feel as hot as an oven. 

7. Look Up: Watch for standing deadfall snags (aka widow makers) that could fall on you.  

8. Watch For Smoke: If you are above the fire but close to a ridge, seek safety on the lee side of the mountain. The fire will race up the hill toward you, but it will generally make much slower progress downhill on the other side of the ridge. However, watch for smoke coming from beyond the ridge; if there is a secondary fire on the lee side of the mountain, you’ll face it coming uphill toward you.

You don’t ever want to find yourself this close to a wildfire. Always remain alert, and at the first sign of trouble, get to the safety of a lake or river or an open space away from trees and brush.

One-Man Fire Shelter

For the very best chance of survival, carry what firefighters use—a fire shelter. This domed foil covering is used as a last resort, when escape is no longer an option. But there are no guarantees. On July 10, 2001, at the Thirty Mile Fire in Washington, four firefighters were killed in their poorly deployed fire shelters when the blaze overran them.  

However, when the shelter has been used properly, it has saved many firefighters’ lives. “When the flame front hit, the shelter was unbearable. I cannot put into words what it was like. The only reason I didn’t get up and get out was because I had enough sense to realize it was a lot worse on the outside,” says one survivor. When it’s more than a thousand degrees outside, you can’t expect the inside of the shelter to feel comfortable—but at least you have a chance of surviving.  

After the Thirty Mile Fire, the New Generation Fire Shelter was put into production. Made by Anchor Industries of Evansville, Ind., it’s said to reflect 95 percent of radiant heat. It’s fairly compact and lightweight, measuring only 81⁄2 by 51⁄2 by 4 inches and weighing about 5 pounds in its pack ($340–$400; firecache.com). Of course, proper training in the use of the shelter is an absolute must. A good place to start is “The New Generation Fire Shelter,” from the National Wildfire Coo­r­­dinating Group (nwcg.gov/teams/pmswt/pms.htm). —R.J.

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