Thru-Hiking with Wildfires: Risk Factors and What You Need to Know

“I actually stared at Crater Lake and couldn’t see the lake. I was at the back area (of the lodge) where there are rocking chairs. I was standing there looking around and I asked someone, hey do you know where the lake is?” recalls Jessica Mills, AKA Dixie. “And they said, ‘Yeah, it’s right there. It’s literally right there.’ We just couldn’t see it from all the smoke.”

Despite making it from Mexico to Canada on the Pacific Crest Trail in 2017, Dixie, along with plenty of other hikers who made the trip that year, saw closures up and down the West Coast as wildfires ignited the mountains along the trail. This resulted in skipping multiple sections along the trail, in turn leading to backtracking and extra planning on how to move forward. Dixie says she had to skip nine sections of trail, and missed sections in every state. The headache led her to return to the PCT this year to make up the sections she was forced to skip.

In some burned areas, it can be hard to find the trail, and standing dead trees pose a hazard to hikers. Siskiyou Wilderness, summer 2018. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

“It was pretty frustrating of course and toward the end kind of demoralizing,” says Dixie. “If I can’t walk from point A to point B in a straight line then what exactly constitutes a thru-hike? Is it every open mile of trail? Or is it a continuous footpath at the expense of missing some miles of trail to do that?”

Even with the devastation, frustration, and danger that comes with wildfires, it’s a natural occurrence that is seen not only along the PCT, but near trails all over the country, including the Appalachian Trail and the Continental Divide Trail.

“A lot of the areas that people would hike through on the Pacific Crest Trail are forest that have seen fires for millennia and it’s a really healthy and natural part of their ecosystem,” explains Lenya Quinn-Davidson, a fire adviser with the University of California Cooperative Extension. She also serves as the director for the Northern California Prescribed Fire Council, and knows the important role these fires serve and the dangers of not seeing fires burn in certain forest.

“We’ve successfully excluded fire from those places for a long time. Many parts of California haven’t seen fire for a century, and so we’re seeing lots of fuel build up, compositional changes, as far as which species are even growing there,” says Quinn-Davidson. “A lot of the areas hikers go through are dense, overgrown forest that have a lot more shade-tolerant species than they would with a natural fire regime.”

Jeff Stackhouse, University of California Cooperative Extension, on a winter prescribed burn in Northern California oak woodlands, December 2017. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

Foresters like herself use prescribed burns to help reduce this problem and to allow for new growth, especially with species that need fire to thrive. They help reduce overgrowth and bring a natural balance back to the forest you would see without human interference.

So, before planning a hike across the country, how do you know if you should expect fires along the trail?

Quinn-Davidson says it helps to look at what kind of winter and spring that places like California are experiencing. A longer winter with more snowpack can lead to an extended spring, which keeps things greener and reduces fire risk. Due to California’s Mediterranean climate, the state sees very little—if any—rainfall after spring. The sooner the rain stops, the earlier the state dries up. That’s why this year has been a quiet fire season compared to 2018 and 2017.

Once on the trail, there are several precautions hikers need to keep in mind in any area that could pose a fire risk.

“It’s a good idea to check in and see what’s going on,” says Quinn-Davidson. She recommends checking in with local officials when you arrive to new sections on the trail. “Make sure you have your permit and people know where you are—if a fire happens, sometimes the Forest Service will go find the hikers. I really encourage people to adhere to the plan they set out, especially during fire season.”

A family hikes through a burned area in the Siskiyou Wilderness, summer 2018. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

Fires can spread quickly if conditions are right, and small changes like wind conditions can quickly grow a fire in the backcountry, another reason to constantly stay in communication with local forest officials.

Situations quickly changed in recent fires along long trails. Instances include the 2017 Eagle Creek fire burning near the PCT at Oregon’s Columbia River Gorge, and the 2016 fire burning near the Great Smoky Mountains National Park section of the AT.

Other concerns include smoke from nearby fires, which could have a negative impact on your lungs, but what has some foresters really concerned is the hiking traffic through recent burn areas.

“We call it situational awareness, but it’s really keeping your eyes out and knowing what’s around you,” says Quinn-Davidson on the dangers of burned trees. She says she’s seen hikers set up tents either below or within fall range of a dead tree. Although the dead trees may still be standing years after the fire, eventually they’ll start to come down. Just this year, a hiker from Germany was killed on the PCT after a tree fell on him. Officials say the tree was rotted at the base.

Crews do work to prevent incidents like this. Foresters from all over the country work to manage trails and wilderness areas, and this includes both prescribed burns and dealing with other factors like clearing brush. More recently, changes in our environment have made the job more difficult.

“We’re seeing a longer fire season in California because of a changing climate,” says Quinn-Davidson. “We’re seeing earlier snowmelt in the spring. We’re seeing a later start to winter. All of that is really influencing our fire season.”

New research shows the fire season has increased on average about two months within the last 50 to 70 years. That’s a significant increase that’s creating more fuel for fires with drier conditions and creating some of the recent devastation seen in places all over the country.

These fires are also reaching into new areas that were unheard of before, burning at lower elevations and putting more people and communities at risk.

Prescribed burn in the north coast of California, fall 2018. Photo by Lenya Quinn-Davidson.

Despite all of this, Quinn-Davidson wants hikers to still get outside and not let the risk deter them, “When people are hiking through these forests, they should try to take note of how fire shaped the forest. Give people the eyes to think about how these landscapes evolved with fire and how they interact now. And that it’s not all bad.”

From a hiker perspective, Dixie says having the hiking community around helped her get through the fire closures. Between trail  angels and splitting shuttle expenses, she and other hikers could make it through states like Oregon, which she says had five sections closed in 2017.

This year, Dixie made it back to the PCT and completed the skipped sections, allowing her to grab the Triple Crown. Now that it’s over, she says she appreciates the hardships of her initial hike and the fact she got to return to the PCT.

“I was standing at Crater Lake and I knew it would be such an amazing place to be but I couldn’t see it, but then I realized one day when I come back I would have seen it both ways,” says Dixie. “So, just knowing you’re seeing something in kind of a unique situation. That helped me stay positive.”

For more information about fire dangers and planning for hikers, you can check out the PCT Association’s page on fire dangers.

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