Where there’s smoke… (PCT Days 95-97)

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As I hiked up the hill leaving Baum Lake I started smelling smoke… It smelled like campfire smoke. Who in the world would have a campfire when the temperatures were in the 90s in July in Northern California during a drought? Didn’t they know that this place is just primed and ready to burn! Over the course of the next half mile or so the smell of smoke got stronger and I got grumpier. I was preparing to give the campers with the fire a stern talking to, whoever they were.

As I approached the crest of the hill I started to see smoke, but no signs of people anywhere! As I got even closer I saw plumes of smoke rising out of the bushes about five feet to the left of the trail. I leaned my hiking poles up against a nearby tree and then pushed through the bushes to check it out. This was not good… Not good at all!

There was a patch of ground covered with forest debris that was smoldering… It looked almost like the coals of a campfire that someone had tried to kick to break up, but more dispersed, and definitely no signs of a campsite… This was something different… Something that I’d never encountered in the woods before… It was an unintentional fire of some kind.

It was a patch of earth roughly 3 feet long and 3 feet wide with a dozen or so charred/smoking sticks and piles of leaves in it… There were no open flames, and it wasn’t spreading quickly. I tried to kick dirt over one of the small smoking piles and then tried stepping on it to put it out, but that didn’t come even close to subduing the smoke. This was going to require more water than I had, and more water than I could easily get. I needed help dealing with this thing. It was still so small that it didn’t seem like it warranted panicking (at least not yet), but it was Northern California, in a heat wave, in a drought… This thing needed to be contained and soon.

It looked like there was a road just up the hill from me and I thought I heard some kind of vehicle up there and maybe a radio. I called out, “hey, there’s a fire down here, is anybody up there?” But I didn’t hear a response so I started bushwhacking up the hill towards the road to find help as I pulled out my phone. My friend hotshot would know what I should do, so I tried calling her… I was pretty sure she’d just tell me to call 911 and get the fire department out there… She didn’t answer… 911 was next on my list…

As I got to what I thought was the road, I instead found a bunch of bulldozer tracks criss-crossed with fire hoses. A fire hose was exactly what I needed!! Well, that and somebody that knew how to use it! I heard another radio squelch… The fire department was already here, somewhere nearby… I just needed to find them.

As I starting walking towards the squelch I saw a very happy sight indeed, a fireman turning the corner and walking towards me with what looked to be another thru-hiker by his side. “There’s a patch of the forest smoldering by the trail,” I exclaimed.

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He nodded, “are there any flames yet?” I replied, “no, not yet… Just charring and smoking.” As I led the way back down to the scorched, smoking earth, the fireman explained to us that there had been a fire in the area yesterday that burned 68 of the adjacent acres, so this was probably just a spot fire that had escaped from the bigger fire. That made sense and explained why they were already in the area.

After we showed him where the fire was he thanked Easy Bee (the other thru-hiker) and me for our help, and for taking time out of our hikes to report the fire and followup on it. He then called it in to the rest of the crew who were going to get water and deal with this mess.

“Where is the trail from here?” He asked. We both pointed to the trail five feet below us. I then asked him a question that I’d been meaning to ask my friend hotshot for a while, “what should we, as hikers, do if/when we encounter a forest fire?”

1. Write down your GPS coordinates if you have them (halfmile’s apps will give them to us).
2. Call the local fire department or 911 to report it.
3. If you don’t have cell service make sure you get the GPS coordinates of the location of the fire, and the next time you get cell service call it in to report it.

If it is a small fire (like the one I encountered), he said that you can try to kick a perimeter around it down to the bare earth (it’s ok to include bushes within that perimeter if you need to). He kicked about a foot an a half to two foot wide buffer of cleared earth around the fire and said that that was likely to keep it contained. Even if you do that, still call it in.

If you come across a campfire that someone has unsuccessfully tried to put out, call it in. Chances are you won’t be able to completely put it out either. He said it’s funny the number of times they end up coming to an abandoned campfire site and find a note from a hiker saying they tried to put it out (signed with their trail name).

If there’s a large fire on the trail he said the biggest thing you need to do is keep your wits about you and pay attention to the wind directions. You want to go whichever direction the wind is coming from because it will be whipping the smokes and flames the other way. He said that usually you can tell just by looking at it which direction the fire is moving in… Don’t go that way, even if it means that you have to go back the way you came from. He also said that most fires around here burn to the northeast, so if you’re unsure which direction to go, you’ll probably be best off if you hike in a generally westerly direction. Avoid canyons, ravines, or anyplace that funnels the wind because that will also funnel the fire. Lastly, if you circle behind the fire, your best bet may be to walk along the edge of the section that has already been burned and charred… You know that that section isn’t going to burn again, even if the wind directions change.

I thanked him for his advice, and headed back up the trail. I hope that I don’t encounter anymore active burn sites on the trail, but at least I have a better understanding of what to do now if I find another fire.

p.s. Last night I saw another section of trees go up in flames in the valley from the overlook I was sleeping at. Be careful out there! For anyone near dunsmuir today:

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official news about the fire

Addendum:
I finally got a chance to talk to my friend Hotshot, who said:

“Only thing I would add to his ‘escape’ advice is that around here fire is often slope driven, not wind driven, going uphill from a fire can be really dangerous… No one can outrun a fire uphill.”

“Also, be careful walking through old burns… Fire weakened trees can be blown over pretty easily so try not to take a break or set up camp under them & keep your head up when you are hiking through a burn scar in the wind!! Welcome to west coast crazy:)”

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