Wildfires, including forest fires, are a major concern when travelling overland, or camping. Whilst some regions have a higher risk factor for wildfires, they can occur in many climates and almost all types of vegetation. An exceptionally dry summer, for example, will also raise the risk in a region not otherwise associated with wildfires. While wildfires can start naturally, such as from a lightning strike, in some areas they are also deliberately started by farmers to clear land for cultivation. They may also result accidentally from campfires, smoking, damaged electrical equipment, and other unintentional human causes.
Your twin goals are to not start a wildfire, and to avoid any that happen to be in your area.
The weather is beyond your control, but you can reduce the risk of starting a wildfire or getting caught in one by knowing what's going on.
Drought and thunderstorms, especially in combination, heighten the risk of wildfires. The so-called "crossover" conditions, where temperature in °C exceeds relative humidity in percent, or "30–30–30" conditions, where temperatures soar above 30°C (90°F), relative humidity plunges below 30% and winds whip around above 30 km/h (20 mph, 8 m/s) are a recipe for disaster. Under these hot, dry, windy conditions, anything can burn relatively easily.
Much of Australia and the southwestern part of the contiguous United States in particular are known for having large wildfires every year that cause major property damage, and often loss of life too. In Southeast Asia, forests fires are often set by local farmers in Sumatra and Kalimantan, Indonesia in order to clear land for farming, resulting in a thick haze that covers much of Malaysia, Singapore, Brunei and parts of the Philippines.
Wildfires are also possible in some regions not otherwise known for them, during periods of extended drought or extreme heatwaves.
If you are in an area with active wildfires or high risk of wildfire, follow some media channels or government websites where you will hear about warnings. Check with your hotel for details.
In countries where wildfires are common, there is typically an established procedure for communicating the risks. Learn how to check that info before setting out.
|“||Only You Can Prevent Wildfires!||”|
You do not want to start a wildfire. One cigarette stump in the wrong place can cause destruction of vast areas. A wildfire can also be started by something as simple as improperly discarded trash. The wildfire can in some circumstances begin hours after you left.
- Be careful when smoking cigarettes or other things. Find a safe method for ash and match disposal before lighting up. Also, have large quantities of sand or water ready to put out the open fire before lighting up.
- Barbecues and campfires (see below) are not sensible when wildfires are a risk.
- Dispose of your rubbish properly. Something as simple as a discarded bottle can act as a lens, and loose packaging adds fuel.
- If driving, be aware that parts of your car might get hot and ignite vegetation, especially if you drive or park off the road. Stop at safe spots. If you're towing a trailer, make sure that no chains are loose enough to drag on the road and throw off sparks. If you have a fire extinguisher, check that it is in easy reach (and controlled as recommended). Also check that electrical hook ups for RV's, trailers and caravans are secure both in and out of use, and that the power is off during handling.
- Fireworks are a hazard if misused or if used during extremely dry conditions.
- Even indoor fires can be hazardous, if sparks are going out the chimney.
Respect directives from authorities. During the dry season, open fires are usually prohibited or require a permit from the local fire authority. Be very careful also with camping stoves, barbecues and even indoor wood-fired stoves (might there be glowing matter going out the chimney?). Some regions (such as Australia) impose a complete ban on all fires (be they camp fires, barbecues, or other fires) under severe drought conditions. There are severe penalties, including jail time for violating bans imposed.
If conditions are safe for a campfire, build it in an existing fire pit if possible. This is easier for you and reduces the risk of a wildfire. Build campfires away from any flammable material like leaves, sticks, or tents. Keep wind in mind when choosing a location. Clear the area and surround the pit with stones. If you make your fire on peat, it may stay glowing deep in the ground and light up much later. Tree roots may act as (very slow) fuses.
Don't leave campfires unattended. When leaving a campground, ensure that your fire is well and truly extinguished, including any coals. Slowly pour water on the embers until the hissing sound has stopped and the ashes are no longer hot to the touch. Stir the ashes with a stick or shovel, and poke any larger pieces to make sure that the inside is extinguished, too. If water is scarce, stir sand through the ashes and coals (don't just pile a layer of sand on top). Whichever method you use, don't leave until your fire is cold and dead. Putting out a campfire can take an hour, or more for a large fire. Hold your hand close to every part of the campfire. If any part seems too warm for you to touch comfortably, then the fire is too hot for you to leave.
You can get trapped in a wildfire. Wildfires can spread fast in windy conditions. In extreme cases, intense wildfires can spawn fire whirl (fire tornado) that behaves like a regular tornado with vortex that sucks debris in. You have to have good margins in an unknown area, where your road or your means of transportation may be affected. Wildfires are always dangerous but they are much more dangerous in areas with tall and dense vegetation, such as forests.
Do not go "fire chasing" under any circumstances! The wildfire could change in direction or intensity, trapping you unexpectedly. Intense heat and particles can cause an engine to stall. A vehicle in this context also creates an unnecessary (and avoidable) obstruction on roads and trails which emergency crews will require access to. Do not use drones or UAVs to take pictures or videos of the wildfire from the sky, as that can impede firefighting and water-bombing aircraft.
The smoke from wildfires is unhealthy, even if you are at some distance. Major wildfires from hundreds of kilometres away can sometimes be similar to passive smoking – possibly a real problem if you have asthma or other health conditions. If you can see it or smell it, then the smoke can affect your health. If you know that you're heading to an area with wildfires, consider taking N95 (normal) or P100 (oil-proof) respirator masks with you. Plan to take at least two per person, per day. Unlike the masks recommended for the COVID-19 pandemic, respirator masks worn to prevent smoke inhalation can have one-way valves that let air out when you breathe out.
If you do see any suspicious smoke, don't be afraid to call the authorities. It may be nothing more than an innocent camping fire or smoke from a chimney, but it's still better to have firefighters check it out, in case it's the start of a major wildfire. If you're visiting a different country, learn the local phone number for emergency services before you set out.
After a fire
After the fire has been extinguished, a burnt forest may be dangerous, as the roots have been damaged. Wait until the area is declared safe or a strong wind storm has blown down the weakened trees.
The first big rainstorm after a wildfire washes ash and other detritus into nearby streams. The rain can also cause mudslides in areas that were previously covered by grass and vegetation.
Burnt buildings and structures should not be approached: unless you can confirm or know from a reliable source that they are safe, they may be unstable.