Yesterday, Yosemite National Park authorities evacuated all visitors from the California park’s lodges and campgrounds due to a large wildfire nearby. Although the fire has not reached the park, the air quality has been deemed very unhealthy due to smoke filling the Yosemite Valley. Travelers to the park are disappointed, but their safety and the work of the firefighters take precedence.

Wildfires are terrifying, so here’s what travelers can do to prevent them and how they can prepare themselves if they are staying in a sensitive area.

Before you leave

If you’re going to a national park, a protected area, or a recreation site/trail during the hot and dry season, make sure you check their official website before you hit the road. They may be closed because of wildfire hazards.

Highways/roads to your destination may also have shut down, so be ready to make other plans.

My partner and I drove from Vancouver, BC to Nelson, BC (an eight-hour drive) in the summer of 2015 and more than half the drive was spent in super thick smoke that reduced our visibility as much as a nasty fog. We drove through the last mountain pass of the trip in complete darkness, with very little visibility because of the smoke, and could see small fires starting on the hills around us. I’ve never been as happy to arrive at a destination as I was that day.

There may not be a fire exactly at your destination, but that does not mean the area’s air quality is not affected if there are fires within range. If you have a respiratory condition or plan to exert yourself physically during your trip, you need to make sure that wildfire smoke is not a problem where you are going.

Be a good camper/outdoor enthusiast

If you like to spend time outdoors, here is what you need to know to avoid wildfires:

  • If there is a campfire ban, respect it. I know that camping does not feel the same if you can’t sit around a campfire roasting marshmallows, but millions of acres of forest — and people’s and animals’ lives and homes are more important than s’mores.
  • If you’re allowed to have a campfire, do it carefully. If it’s windy and super dry out there, do without your fire. If the weather’s good to go, make sure the area is far enough away from flammable material such as shrubs, leaves, twigs, pine needles, etc. Make a ring of rocks to contain it and keep a large bucket of water near it. Fires are more unpredictable than you may think.
  • Never leave your campfire unattended and always make sure the fire is 100% extinguished before you leave. To extinguish a campfire properly, pour water on and around it and only leave when there is no ember left, and the area feels cold to the touch.
  • Don’t use the outdoors as your personal ashtray. You should not throw away cigarette butts outside at any time of the year (that’s littering in case you did not know), but it’s especially dangerous during the dry season. Stub your cigarettes and keep the butts inside of your car or home and dispose of them properly once you’ve made sure they are cold to the touch.
  • Don’t operate All-Terrain Vehicles (ATVs) or dirt bikes in tall grass or dry vegetation during the hot and dry season. The heat from their exhaust can start a fire. Use your two feet or your bicycle to enjoy the outdoors, it’s less risky and everyone will be thankful for the silence.

Always be prepared

If there is a wildfire in the area where you are staying, it’s crucial for you to be prepared to evacuate at a moment’s notice. Fires can gain ground fast if the wind picks up, and a situation that did not seem dangerous a few hours ago can turn out to be life-threatening. To evacuate fast, your gas tank must be at least half-full and you need to know what route you’re going to use.

The government of British Columbia also recommends that you have a “grab-and-go” bag ready with you during the time of your stay in an area affected by wildfires. If you need to hit the road fast and sleep in your vehicle or a shelter for a night or two, you’ll be happy to have the following items:

  • Food and water
  • Flashlight/headlamp and batteries
  • AM/FM radio
  • Medication(s)
  • Clothing
  • Blanket
  • Pen and paper
  • Cell phone and cell phone charger
  • Toiletries
  • First aid kit
  • Glasses or contacts
  • Cash
  • Local map
  • Whistle
  • Identification documents

Report wildfires

If you spot a wildfire, do not assume that someone else has, or will report it. Call 911 to signal the fire as soon as you see it – the information you provide can make the difference between life and death for the population and the animals in the area.

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