Mid August. Out east this is simply late summer. Out west however, this is the height of fire season. And if you’re going to be RVing out west this time of year, it’s good to pay attention to what’s going on with the fires as they can seriously impact travel plans.
Having lived east of the Mississippi until I hit the road, I didn’t really understand the wildfire thing until I made it out west in 2015. My scariest morning on the road was the morning I woke up to a wildfire out my window at Lee Vining, CA two summers ago. I ended up having to change my travel plans completely because 395 was shut down. And besides road closures and evacuations, smoke in the air reduces visibility and becomes a health hazard if thick enough.
Inciweb is a government run site that tracks all wildfires in the US, and is a valuable tool for checking on the status of fires near places you might be staying at or planning to visit. Calling local authorities such as park or forest departments or DNR offices will also get you information, but these lines are often overrun during fire season so I recommend Inciweb unless you don’t have internet access or you absolutely need to speak to someone in person. The Inciweb map shows icons where fires are located, and zooming in lets you see the area that a fire has burned. For this example, I’m looking at the Ferguson fire that closed parts of Yosemite National Park this summer.
So here you can see that the fire got very close to Yosemite Valley, the most popular part of the park, but did not make it in. Clicking the fire icon brings up some basic stats about the fire. Bigger and more noteworthy fires like Ferguson get updated on Inciweb numerous times a day, smaller fires burning in remote places that don’t impact people may only get updated once or twice a week.
Clicking “Go to Incident” will bring up a lot more information about the fire in question, including when and how the fire started, how the fire is being managed, who is managing it, and how many personnel are working the fire. Closures and evacuation notices are also displayed prominently, and there may also be external links to associated helpful pages such as air quality, social media pages, and who to contact for further information. Here under “Current Situation” we can see that all entrances into Yosemite are open again as of two days ago, but care should be taken when driving in the park as there are still a lot of fire personnel and equipment in the area.
We also see that two people died fighting this fire. When you’re not the person directly impacted, it’s easy to keep emotional distance from the threat of wildfires, but every summer thousands of men and women put their lives on the line to save lives, property, and treasures like Yosemite National Park. This time, Braden Varney and Brian Hughes paid the ultimate price. Thank you firefighters, for your service.
AirNow is another government site, this one tracking air quality across the US. I’m currently camping near Mt Hood in northern OR, and here we can see that I’m in an orange area. Orange means unhealthy for sensitive groups, such as older adults, children, and those with heart or lung problems. Clicking an area on the map will show specific numbers for nearby cities.
This is a good site to follow if you’re sensitive to smoke, or if you’re wanting to avoid areas with poor visibility. There’s a pretty thick smoke haze hanging in the air here that is swallowing the mountain views which makes for a less scenic camping experience. Mt Hood is barely visible.
Never leave campfires unattended, and put out fires completely when you’re done with them.
Know the fire regulations for places you’re camping, and respect burn bans when they’re called – that includes not only no campfires, but often no charcoal grills, fireworks or shooting either.
Be careful with flammable liquids, heaters, stoves, and lanterns. Store fuel away from appliances or anything that might spark.
If your rig has a propane system, check it regularly for leaks and if you notice one, immediately turn off your propane and do not use it until the leak is fixed.
Only dump coals and ash from grills in designated areas.
Dispose of cigarette butts properly.
Don’t create sparks near flammable materials. For instance, don’t let metal come in contact with the road while driving, such as dragging trailer safety chains.
What to do when threatened by a fire
If an evacuation is posted where you’re camping due to a wildfire, don’t wait, get out of there. If you’re in an area that is on evacuation alert, that means there’s a chance you’ll have to evacuate. Pack up as much of your camp as you can and don’t stray too far from your RV in case an evacuation is called so you can leave in a hurry. This is the situation I was in with the Marina Fire in Lee Vining.
In developed areas, if an evacuation is called you’ll likely hear about it in person from campground management or officials. In remote and dispersed areas though it isn’t a guarantee and if a fire springs up suddenly or you’re boondocking somewhere without signal, Inciweb may not yet have info about the fire, or you may not be able to access it or call out to ask. It’s up to you to decide if you want to risk boondocking without signal in a fire-prone area when wildfire risk is high.
Be safe out there everyone!