Hiking in the West: How to Deal With Wildfires

When I first moved to California I was more than a little disheartened to leave behind my former seasons of spring, summer, winter, and fall for the new ones - Fire Season and Mud Season.

My introduction was swift - just as I was settling into my first L.A. apartment, 15 wildfires blazed throughout Southern California in what local media in true Hollywood fashion called the "2003 Firestorm."  I remember red skies during the day and cleaning ash off of my car and from inside my windowsills at night.

Just a few years later I was on a camping trip in Yosemite when a prescribed burn blazed out of control, clouding skies and closing roads I needed to use to get back to my camp site ... and on the drive back down to Los Angeles I could see the smoke from the Station Fire from hundreds of miles away - that fire would eventually become the largest in L.A. history and effectively close half of the Angeles National Forest for years.

Fires from Space The 2003 CA Fires as seen from space. Courtesy of NASA

To hike in the West is to know wildfires - you're camping in places where the only allowed heat is from a gas-powered stove, hiking through forests with charred tree trunks, or in some cases not allowed to hike at all due to fire closures. But these days, even though the forecast is often full of doom and gloom, hikers and outdoorspeople don't need to feel like they can't help.


The best way to deal with wildfires is to prevent them from happening in the first place.  Most wildfires are the result of accidents - someone didn't check to make sure their campfire was out or got lost and tried to light a signal fire or parked their car over some tall grass.  Know the fire restrictions in your area and find out if you can volunteer with a local group to help clear brush from high fire risk areas.


Once you know the fire safety for your region, share it with your hiking buddies.  And after a wildfire happens, visit the area (if you're allowed) to learn more about fire ecology.  Here in Southern California, Point Mugu State Park was re-opened to the public just a few weeks after a huge wildfire - and people flocked to the trails to see first-hand what happens after a wildfire.

Trailbuilding tools Trailbuilding tools ready for some volunteers' hands.


You'd be hard-pressed to find a state or local park or National Forest / Park unit that's not looking for volunteer help - especially after a wildfire.  I found a local trailbuilding group on Facebook and chipped in to help restore one of my favorite trails damaged in the 2009 Station Fire.  Other friends of mine have donated their time pulling up opportunistic invasive plants or planting trees.  Check for volunteer opportunities at your favorite park on your next visit or head to volunteer.gov to see who needs help in your neck of the woods.

recovering from wild fire Yuccas recovering just three weeks after a wildfire.

With climate change bringing us worsening droughts and increasing the habitats of invasive and dangerous species, destructive wildfires are going to be a part of our future - but learning about how fires work and how you can help after the burn is done will give you an opportunity to make a tangible difference in the face of a seemingly insurmountable challenge ... and both the forests and your fellow hikers will appreciate it.


**Editor's Note: Casey is a regular contributor to the Sierra Trading Post Blog as part of #TeamSierra. Learn more about hiking in Southern California on his blog: Modern Hiker
posted by
Casey Schreiner
Blogger at Modern Hiker
Casey Schreiner writes Modern Hiker, Los Angeles' oldest and most-read hiking blog. Casey's been encouraging Angelenos to explore the world-class hiking beyond the Walk of Fame since 2005. When not exploring trails, Casey is a freelance television writer and producer. Keep up with Casey on Twitter and on Instagram .
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