What to do if your travels are disrupted by wildfires
How to prepare, how to pack, and what to do if you get trapped. Plus, how to help those affected out west.
The Western United States is coping with an ongoing series of wildfires as well as forest fires that started from human interference across California, Oregon, and Washington. According to NASA, the fire season is from late spring until seasonal winter rains or snow arrive. It’s possible to safely enjoy a vacation out west during the fire season. Travelers planning trips to fire-prone areas should prepare for the worst-case scenario and pack a few critical items.
A smart traveler is always prepared. “Adopt the attitude that ‘it can happen to me.” The best time to plan for a crisis is before the crisis occurs,” says Randy Haight, Senior Director of global risk consultancy FocusPoint International. “Conduct a review of ingress and egress routes into and out of an area before you go.” Have a plan for multiple routes as some roads may be closed or inaccessible during a fire.
There are a significant number of fires ongoing in California. If you’re headed to The Golden State check out CalFire and the state tourism board’s travel alert for the most up-to-date information and resources. Haight recommends using tools that offer predictive analysis about the wildfire season such as National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook. Also check the Active Fire Mapping Program and air-quality conditions on AirNow.gov. Consult local weather and air-quality forecasts and search for news reports about fire alerts, road closures, and power shutoffs.
Ask your accommodation about their contingency plan should you need to make an emergency evacuation and follow their instructions closely. Book flexible accommodation with the option to cancel should you need to change your plans due to fire or smoke. If you’re unable to cancel your hotel see if you can offer the room for local evacuees.
Should you need to evacuate, do so at your earliest opportunity to avoid taking critical resources away from locals. If you’re relying on public transportation have a backup plan for how you can safely remove yourself from danger. If you’re driving, have a full tank of gas. Bring an emergency kit with a First Aid kit, water, blankets, cell phone charger, spare medication, a wind-up radio capable of receiving emergency weather broadcasts, and N-95 masks which can help filter smoke particles.
Ensure your loved ones know exactly where you are so they can track you down if there’s an emergency. Ask them to alert you if they learn about fire dangers in the area where you are. If you’re going hiking in a dry area during the fire season, share your geo-coordinates with them.
While spending time in nature, practice extreme caution during dry conditions. Be sure to read up on local laws regarding open fires before your trip, especially if you’re camping. If you encounter a fire, leave immediately. Don’t try to put out the hot spot. Once you’ve reached safety, contact emergency services to ensure firefighters have dispatched.
What do I do if I get caught in a wildfire?
Fires can move at the speed of one football field every second. “If caught in a wildfire, don’t try to outrun it,” Haight says. “Find a body of water and get in it. Or find a clearing or depression and get low to the ground. Try to breathe the air closest to the ground when fire is near.” If you can’t find a body of water wet your towels, blankets, and clothes and use them as protection against the flames.
Support those affected
To support those affected by the wildfires contribute to reputable NGO organizations supporting aid efforts. Traveler Kay Kingsman was living in an evacuation zone for the Oregon fires and suggests sending donations of water, clothing, and air purifiers if you live near an impacted area. Many winemakers have been damaged from fire and ash—order a crate of wine to support their business. Everest Effect is a mutual aid crisis recovery platform providing immediate help and relief to those affected by the disaster.
Lola Méndez is a sustainable travel advocate who writes the responsible lifestyle blog Miss Filatelista.