Fire on the Mountain

When the Grateful Dead sang, “Fire on the Mountain,” they didn’t mean forest fires. Ten years later James Hansen delivered his global warming report to Congress. Now, 30 years after that, the summer wildfire season begins earlier and ends later, and wildfire preparation is part of visiting our beloved forests, mountains, and deserts.

“I am only going for a two-hour hike. What could possibly go wrong?” Rachel Pawlitz, Public Affairs Officer for the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area, has heard this before. This was the attitude of most of the hikers led to safety out of the 2017 Eagle Creek Fire. Pawlitz stresses that hikers must bring at least five essentials, even on a spontaneous short hike. These are:

  1. A flashlight—one that’s not also your cell phone
  2. Extra water
  3. Extra food.
  4. A warm layer of clothes
  5. A compass and paper map of your area.

Being prepared is one part of the equation. The other part—don’t be the cause of a wildfire! It is easy to assume we are being safe, but you should never assume. Thoroughly extinguish your campfire and check for heat with the back of your hand before leaving it. Be mindful if driving or parking your vehicle over dry grass or other fuels. Never introduce cigarette butts or explosive or flammable materials to the landscape. Target shooting can inadvertently spark a fire.

Finally, if you see something, do something. If you see smoke, call 911. Unless you are in a National Park, the local Sherriff’s office will be coordinating fire response. Don’t be afraid of “bothering” them. You might even be the first to report the smoke. Cell phone reception can be spotty or non-existent, so be aware of high open spots for your best opportunity.

Even with the best preparation, you may still have an encounter with wildfire. Guy Gifford, a Department of Natural Resources Fire Prevention Coordinator, reminds us of a few basic principles: Assume a fire is traveling in the same direction you see smoke blowing. Fire goes uphill much faster than we can. Grassland fires move fast, and can kill people, too. There are ways to take shelter when escape is no longer an option: look for an open area with the least fuel, such as exposed rock, a space already burned, open water, or a low creek bed. Heat and fire rise, so get low. Protect your lungs first. Cover your nose and mouth with a dry cloth, as a wet one will conduct more heat.

We have responsibilities to protect others and ourselves when we enjoy our adventures in nature—and maybe also to think about James Hansen’s report, and to vote!

Bea Lackaff remains torn between the unmet needs of her garden and the call of old and new trails to hike. She wrote about her solitary month at Cache Creek on the Snake River in December 2017.

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