Wildfires have, unfortunately, become more common across the US and all of North America. While there are steps, big and small, that we can take as individuals and societies to correct this trend, the current reality is that those of us planning outdoor trips during wildfire season must consider wildfires in our trip planning process.
Before picking a destination for your outdoor adventure, ask yourself this: How likely is it that there will be wildfires burning in the region I want to travel to? If the answer is “very likely” then you might want to pick a different spot.
This blog is a guide for smarter outdoor trip planning during wildfire season. It includes a heat map of wildfire frequency in the US by region and month. This is your cheat sheet for knowing where you can go to have the best odds of avoiding smokey or downright dangerous conditions. (Bookmark this page for reference anytime you’re planning an adventure in the US during wildfire season.)
We’ve also compiled tips for wildfire-aware trip planning, and answers to fundamental questions about wildfire preparedness. Our goal is to provide you with an overall grasp of how wildfires are caused, when they happen, and how you can avoid starting one.
Being conscious of how wildfire risks change with the seasons is especially important when planning for big events, such as July 4th camping trips, Labor Day adventures, or your next big summer road trip. And once you’ve picked an ideal destination, always (ALWAYS) check the current wildfire conditions in the area before you commit to going.
Okay, let’s get to it.
What causes wildfires in the United States? And when is wildfire season?
Wildfires can be caused by natural factors, human factors, or a combination of the two. Natural causes include climate conditions like lightning strikes, prolonged droughts, high temperatures, low humidity, and strong winds. Human activities also play a significant role in igniting wildfires in the United States, such as unattended campfires, discarded cigarettes, fireworks, and equipment sparks. Sometimes climate conditions and neglectful human activities occur simultaneously, under which circumstances wildfires can be particularly devastating.
Wildfire season varies across different regions of the United States due to differences in climate and vegetation. Generally, wildfire seasons are more prevalent during periods of hot, dry weather, which varies based on geographic location. In some regions, such as the western states, the peak wildfire season typically occurs in the late summer and early fall when vegetation is at its driest. However, wildfire activity may peak during different months depending on climate patterns and weather anomalies. It is important to consult local authorities and resources specific to the region you are in or planning to visit to determine the wildfire season's timing and potential risks. *Further resources below*
How prevalent are wildfires in the US? And how does this vary by region?
Wildfires are a significant concern in the United States, affecting various regions differently. We mainly hear about wildfires in the dry regions, specifically in the forests near the Southwest, but every region can be affected. The frequency and severity of wildfires vary due to differences in climate, vegetation, and human population density. California, in particular, has been heavily impacted by wildfires in recent years due to drier climates and vast forested areas. Other regions, like the Southeast, face frequent, but also less predictable wildfire challenges. Wildfires can happen in any season, and understanding the regional variations in wildfire prevalence and the current climate conditions of your destination is crucial for trip planning and responsible outdoor recreation.
How can I make sure I don’t start a forest fire?
As we have said, forest fires start from various sources, both natural and human-related. Human activities that contribute to forest fires are mostly preventable. To be responsible while recreating and prevent starting a forest fire:
- Observe fire restrictions and adhere to local regulations.
- Use only designated fire pits or rings when allowed
- Ensure a fire is completely extinguished before leaving.
- Never leave a campfire unattended and keep it small.
- Properly dispose of cigarettes and other flammable materials in trash bins.
- Avoid using fireworks or other pyrotechnic devices in areas prone to wildfires.
- Be cautious when using equipment that generates sparks, such as chainsaws or welding equipment, especially in dry and windy conditions.
By practicing responsible behaviors, we can significantly reduce the risk of human-caused wildfires and protect our natural environment.
Can I go camping when wildfires are going on? What are the rules of thumb here?
Camping during active wildfire season requires careful consideration and adherence to guidelines provided by local authorities and land management agencies. Here are some rules of thumb and best practices:
- Stay informed: Monitor wildfire updates from local authorities and fire management agencies.
- Check for closures: Before heading out, verify if camping areas or recreational sites are closed due to active wildfires.
- Plan alternate destinations: Have backup options in case your intended camping area is affected by wildfires.
- Follow evacuation orders: If in an area under evacuation orders or warnings, prioritize your safety and follow the instructions of emergency responders.
- Be flexible: Wildfire conditions can change rapidly, so be prepared to modify your plans or relocate if necessary.
- Practice Leave No Trace principles: Leave the campsite as you found it, ensuring proper disposal of waste and minimizing the risk of fire ignition.
Long story short, yes, you can camp near active wildfires if you can bear the smoke, but be responsible! By being responsible and adaptable, you can still enjoy camping experiences while respecting the risks posed by ongoing wildfires.
How can I improve my trip planning process to make it wildfire-aware? Do you have any pro tips, tools or resources?
To enhance your trip planning process with wildfire awareness, here are some great tips, tools, and resources:
- Research regional wildfire information: Look for resources that provide up-to-date information on wildfire activity and restrictions in the areas you plan to visit. *Resources provided at the bottom of the blog.
- Consult official websites: Visit websites of national parks, state forestry departments, and fire management agencies for specific guidelines and recommendations.
- Use wildfire tracking apps: Utilize mobile apps that provide real-time wildfire information, including fire perimeters, smoke conditions, and evacuation notices. A great example is Firespot.
- Pack emergency essentials: Prepare an emergency kit with essentials such as first aid supplies, extra food and water, batteries, flashlight, duct tape, and a battery-powered radio.
- Educate yourself on fire safety: Learn about fire behavior, fire safety techniques, and evacuation procedures to ensure you are well-prepared in case of emergencies.
- Consider alternative destinations: If the risk of wildfires is high in your planned destination, explore other areas less prone to wildfire activity.
- Share your plans: Inform friends or family about your itinerary and expected return date so that someone knows your whereabouts in case of emergencies.
By incorporating these tips into your trip planning process, you can make informed decisions, prioritize safety, and minimize the potential impact of wildfires on your outdoor adventures.
Start Here: Heat map of wildfire frequency in the US by region and month
When preparing for your next trip, it's essential to consider the heat map below, which highlights the peak wildfire seasons in each region of America. This valuable resource allows you to plan and prepare accordingly, taking into account the weather conditions and air quality for a safe and enjoyable experience. Our recommendation? Avoid the red squares on the chart. Once you find a suitable destination, research the specifics—current conditions, etc.
Wildfires pose significant challenges to outdoor recreation and the natural environment. By understanding the causes of wildfires, regional variations in prevalence, responsible recreation practices, and trip planning considerations, we can engage in outdoor activities while minimizing risks and promoting wildfire prevention. It is crucial to stay informed, follow regulations, and prioritize safety when planning and embarking on outdoor adventures. By fostering a wildfire-aware mindset, we can protect our cherished landscapes, support firefighting efforts, and ensure the enjoyment of outdoor recreation for generations to come.
National Interagency Fire Center: https://www.nifc.gov/
Ready.gov Wildfires: https://www.ready.gov/wildfires
National Fire Protection Association: https://www.nfpa.org/Public-Education/Fire-causes-and-risks/Wildfire
Remember, staying informed and taking necessary precautions can help ensure a safe and enjoyable trip amidst the potential risks posed by wildfires.
How do you prepare for your upcoming trips? Let us hear it on social media: @aclim8gear. And make sure to sign up for our email newsletter (sign up below) so you never miss a pro tip or trip report.
Want more wilderness and survival tips? Check out 4 Alternative Fire-Starting Techniques from a Survivalist and Overlander. (Use these responsibly!)
Ready to uplevel your campfire-making skills? Check out How to Make Perfect Campfire Kindling Using your Basic Survival Tools.
Looking for overlanding pro tips? Check out Overlanding? Keep These 5 Essential Items In Your Emergency Kit.