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View Full Version : LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?



Heroique
26-Jun-2015, 11:23
Thanks to negligible snow pack in my local Olympic mountains – and the driest May and June on record here – one can (and should) anticipate a fire-filled summer on the Olympic Peninsula.

Things are just as dry in the N. Cascades.

Already in the Olympics, there's a stubborn, 1,000-acre fire burning in the Queets River valley on very steep slopes. It's mostly spreading across tree tops, dropping hot cinders to the forest floor. There's little firefighters can do about it for now except map it, hope for cooler air and rain, and drop helicopter-flown buckets of water on limited areas. It continues to grow. And grow.

Below is part of the steep area in blaze. :(

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Last weekend, I was in this general region (the Peninsula's west side, near Forks, Washington). I smelled smoke – and saw it as a thin, whitish haze lingering in the lower elevations; however, I was also aware of the ongoing Queets River fire well to the south of me. But how could I be 100% sure of the source? After coming out of the woods – curious and concerned – I checked with the local Nat'l Forest office, as I had on my way in.

The field ranger confirmed there were no new fires reported in the area.

"Not for now," she said with emphasis. "But there's a long summer and fall ahead of us."

These conditions raise a question about safety, especially for LFers in the drought-stricken Pacific coast states – California, Oregon, Washington.

Let's say that before you head into the woods, you check with the local FS office. You learn of no special warnings in your area. But once in the woods, you smell smoke.

What precautions have you taken, and what are your first steps?

Drew Wiley
26-Jun-2015, 11:41
Been there, done that.... over and over again. I once saw and smelled smoke in the western playas of Utah that originated near my home town on the western
slope of the Sierra, two states away, that had siphoned thru the high passes and clear across Nevada. I've had to hike above smoke in canyons and hope for the
best up on the peaks. And quite a few times I've simply had to get out of Dodge as quickly as possible. Carrying heavy packs in a combination of heat and choking smoke is well, uh,er, not exactly the best way to hope to live a long life. Every summer, including this one, I retain multiple vacation options, because on any given year the odds are 50/50 that my first choice will get spoiled by either smoke or extreme weather. Smoke way down the hill somewhere, or even clear across the state, has a way of siphoning through river canyons and up toward low spots of passes between the peaks. Sometimes just shifting over to the next watershed will cure that. But in the Sierras we have the deepest canyons on the continent, and it's not always that easy to suddenly skip from Point A to Point B. Therefore discretion becomes the better part of valor. Cut your backpack short and start up a different brief one a distance aways. Last year I knew the
problem was going to be so severe that I simply gave up on anything around here and went to the Wind River range in Wyoming to backpack. Lucky for me, since that seems to have been the only significant range in the West that wasn't on fire that month, or involved in related drought. But there is terrible beetle kill
in the pines there, so when it does burn, it could be bad in spots. In terms of logistics, I just have everything packed up for whatever, tell any potential companions to prepare similarly, including various maps, then make my final decision often only on the very day I intend to travel, based on the latest reports,
including NP,FS, BLM, and Highway Patrol updates. If the worst happens, stay near running creeks, keep a mildly damp kerchief over your nose, wipe your eyes
frequently, and carefully scan terrain ahead for potential combustibility.

goamules
26-Jun-2015, 11:50
I've smelled smoke from active fires 20 miles away, or even a state away. A plan for light smoke is to be aware of active fires in the area, and do nothing. If it is dense smoke, you still need to know fires follow a front, like the front line of a battle. You just don't want to be downwind or uphill from such a front, and within a mile or two if it's windy. The plan for that is to move cross wind (neither upwind, towards the fire, nor downwind, trying to outrun it).

Drew Wiley
26-Jun-2015, 12:52
It's really hard to know what is going on unless you have a high vantage point with clear enough air above to see where the smoke is coming from. I've fought fires
and have personally lived through a few true monster-sized ones. Something small can turn bit fast in dry brush or timber. Being up above timberline is obviously
lower risk than down below in the forest. But a lot of smoke is very unhealthy anywhere. But just like I alluded to above, in a couple of anecdotes, it can be hard
to tell if the first is hundreds of miles away or somewhere right down hill where your exit trail is. Year and years of experience has given me a degree of gut instinct about such things, but no quantifiable formula. Lightning storms can start multiple fires all at once; some will burn out and some might go big. Understanding the nature of local vegetation is important. Tamarack groves, for example, tend to self-limit with regard to the area of lightning burns because
their originally propagate in mtn meadows following fires. But up in northern latitudes they make up vast forests. Brush fires lower down can get huge because
once chaparral matures, it's designed by nature to burn. Fire is required to open up the seeds. Then we all know about crown fires in evergreen (now everdry)
forests - bad, bad, bad. So you can almost tell by the smell of the smoke the nuances.

vinny
26-Jun-2015, 12:54
Call Fatali to make sure he's not shooting down there.

Drew Wiley
26-Jun-2015, 13:23
The color of the smoke can also tell you a lot. If it's a brush fire heavy in creosote or components of redneck cabins (tarpaper, Elvis rugs, old tires, etc) the smoke is often black. A fast-running ground fire in pine needles etc maybe browning smoke. But a crown fire in otherwise healthy evergreens more whitish (bad omen), unless it's something like an old-growth Douglas fir forest rich in turpenes. You also want to evaluate the density of the smoke. If its billowing it can't be far away, but if just high and wispy could have come from far off on high-altitude winds. A narrow plume is something small nearby, but not necessarily going to remain small. You need to assess how dry the conditions are, both on the ground and at the time (for example, "dry lightning" versus "wet lightning). The problem with keeping up with conditions electronically is that cell phone coverage can be very spotty in the mountains, computer updates are not immediate by any means, and the Forest Service and related agencies generally communicate via short-wave radio (bulky gear). Furthermore, at any given moment, they
might be talking about "Fire A", when there's also a B,C,D,and E which started during the same lightning storm. Basically, during high-risk season I try to get
past deep woods up to the high country, and just inherently keep an exit strategy in the back of my head somewhere, just in case. There have already been over
two thousand fires in California alone so far this year, but only two large ones. Given the severity of the drought, and the fact that even Alaska is experiencing
major burns this year, choose one's destinations thoughtfully.

Drew Wiley
26-Jun-2015, 15:26
Third post, right after lunch. There's a fire right now. The fog has a slightly brown tinge as it blows in. I can slightly smell the smoke; but more important, I can taste it. It's obviously a city industrial fire. I can taste the oil a bit, but wood smoke too. Grass fires inland (there have been several locally this week) would have
a different smell and have little taste (but also require a counterflow of wind from the normal here). Just a coincidental example. And I'm about to sneeze.

Randy Moe
26-Jun-2015, 16:33
That Canadian fire's smoke is clearly? visible in Chicago and often reported as a climate factor here.

We see it, we smell it.

tgtaylor
26-Jun-2015, 20:34
Skip over it.

A few years back we were doing the JMT from Happy Isles in Yosemite Valley to Mt. Whitney - 211 miles + another 15 miles (the longest 15 miles you'll ever do) downhill to Whitney Portal. Driving into Groveland the place was full of smoke and the drive into the valley was smoke filled and surreal. So we skipped over the Yosemite Park start and instead started in Mammoth Lakes (Reds Meadow) eliminating the smoke and cutting about 60 miles off the hike. I'm an ex-smoker (quite last in January, 1980) and have since have become quite sensitive to smoke. If we started hiking in Happy Isles as planned, I would have probably been dead by the time we reached Tuolumne Meadows.

Thomas

Jac@stafford.net
26-Jun-2015, 20:49
Drew: " If it's a brush fire heavy in creosote or components of redneck cabins (tarpaper, Elvis rugs, old tires, etc) the smoke is often black."

Had me laughing too hard to reply, but now that I can, thank you for the rest, an informative post.

Bill Burk
27-Jun-2015, 09:21
I don't have a lot of stories to tell of fires... So stop me if you've already heard this:

When we lived in Camp Nelson, we were friends with the couple who were lookouts at the Needles...

One weekend a group of Swedes came to visit and we all hiked to the tower.

We sat around drinking Mimosas, chatting and catching up as we ignored the beautiful view...

Of a scene that looks exactly like that shot Heroique posted...

Craig Roberts
27-Jun-2015, 19:54
June 2012 - Looking east from Mesa Verde.

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Vaughn
28-Jun-2015, 08:11
I was working as a fire lookout --but had to stay in my truck as the lookout tower was no long safe to occupy (since then it has been restored). After a particularily nasty stretch of lightening I got out of the truck, walked around the tower as it blocked my view to the north, and called in a fire . The location was easy to report as it was just below me on my mountain....nothing major, just a tree top on fire, but I called in several more smokes I could see popping up in the north in the wilderness area. Much nicer work than being on the fire line breathing smoke.

DG 3313
28-Jun-2015, 09:01
Many years ago I was alone in the Altamont Pass near Livermore, Ca. shooting a sunset. After the show I loaded up my gear and drove out of the hills toward the paved road. A wind turbine had met it's demise and a small grass fire was ignited in the process. The wind seemed to be blowing in the opposite direction the fire was traveling and stalled it. I was in my truck and the only thing I had to put it out with was a beach towel behind the seat. This was before cell phones were affordable and I knew it would spread before I could get to a gas station to call the FD. The towel worked and I got out of there before anybody else showed up. I started carrying a shovel but haven't had to use it.

Heroique
30-Jun-2015, 12:29
June 2012 - Looking east from Mesa Verde.

136038>>>136146
Craig, what a suitable shape for smoke to take in the high-desert Southwest. :cool:

-----
On a more somber note, today is the second anniversary of the Yarnell Fire near Prescott Arizona, where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshot crew lost their lives.

Everybody be careful out there for the upcoming July 4th weekend.

Drew Wiley
30-Jun-2015, 12:59
In much of the state any fireworks whatsoever carry criminal penalties now. Several official city-sponsored displays have been canceled. We'll still have our various big shows shot over the Bay from multiple pier locations, and there will be plenty of stuff going off on city asphalt everywhere. But out toward the burbs and all the dry grass inland, any such thing could end up catastrophic. Ironically, firefighting budgets are getting cut everywhere due to budget issues, including a lot of Fed funding right when we need it most. And some the reservoirs where helicopters scoop up water in those big hanging buckets are outright dry or too shallow to use. I feel kinda spoiled, having just taken another walk out on the coast where it was literally raining under the trees from all the fog, gorgeous wildflowers everywhere, and me pigging out on thimbleberries and blackberries as usual. Want to get into all the wild plums this weekend, and maybe bag another sheet film shot or two. One of the silver linings to this drought thing is that the grass isn't very tall inland, so grass fires spread more slowly than following a wet winter. Good thing, because - speaking of the Altamont area - there have been several grass fires out there these past two weeks.

Bill_1856
30-Jun-2015, 13:12
I'd call on my satellite phone to keep one of my choppers on standby.

Heroique
30-Jun-2015, 13:13
Good thing, because - speaking of the Altamont area - there have been several grass fires out there these past two weeks.

And in broader context…

The states currently reporting major fires, according to the Nat'l Interagency Fire Center:


Alaska (27)
Arizona (1)
California (1)
Colorado (1)
Florida (2)
Idaho (2)
Nevada (2)
Oregon (5)
Washington (3)

"Fire activity has picked up in the Northwest with a total of eight large fires in Oregon and Washington," they say.

-----
Source: https://www.nifc.gov/fireInfo/nfn.htm

Drew Wiley
1-Jul-2015, 09:37
Choppers won't fly in smoke. Even borate bombers go down from time to time due to visibility issues. A veteran pilot was lost that way last year in the Sierra.
Visibility issues from smoke in a major forest fire can be almost as bad as walking into a Texas hotel lobby.

John Kasaian
3-Jul-2015, 15:23
Saute the peppers, caramelize the onions, after applying a dry rub, sear the steak on both sides, pour a glass of good merlot and call it a day.:rolleyes:

Preston
3-Jul-2015, 19:26
Since it's fire season once again, I thought I'd repost the link to InciWeb (http://www.inciweb.org/). You can search for federally managed, or joint command fires in any state. The reports give resources, acreage, fire weather alerts, evacuations, road, trail, and campground closures. Well worth visiting if you plan to be anywhere where there is fire activity.

For non-federal fires, you should consult your state's natural resources, or forestry department.

Drew: Borate hasn't been used in many years. The current retardant is Phoschek. It's a slurry composed of water, detergents, fertilizer, and a red-orange dye. There are two types: 'Short Term' and 'Long Term'. 'Short Term' is used for direct attack on the fire's edge, and 'Long Term' is used to pre-treat areas ahead of the fire. Copters and air tankers can fly in smoke, but they do try to fly outside and upwind of the rising smoke column; not only due to visibility issues, but also turbulence, foreign object damage, and reduced air density.

Please be careful out there, everyone. A photograph isn't worth being burned over.

--P

Drew Wiley
6-Jul-2015, 08:43
Thanks for the tech update Preston.

Sirius Glass
6-Jul-2015, 12:25
Let's say that before you head into the woods, you check with the local FS office. You learn of no special warnings in your area. But once in the woods, you smell smoke.

What precautions have you taken, and what are your first steps?

Call and report it by cell phone, CB radio, 2 meter band or 70cm band to get the word out the the local Forest Service office with as much specificity as I can supply. Then get the f out of there.

Alan Klein
6-Jul-2015, 12:31
When I use to live in NYC, you'd smell some pretty bad stuff. It usually was blowing from the west from New Jersey across the Hudson River. Now that I moved to New Jersey, about 40 miles south of NYC, it's actually cleaner and I don't smell anything. Well, NJ is called the Garden State. :)

Drew Wiley
6-Jul-2015, 13:08
So Sirius, how are you gonna get that cell phone, CB, or whatever bandwidth to work unless you get out FIRST? None of those options are normally available to a backcountry traveler. A GPS rescue beacon might work or not, depending on local infrastructure, nature of terrain, and how backed up they are already. There are plenty of places in the West cell phones simply don't work. When I merely arrive at a typical trailhead that's true already. Then for the next week or two, you're on your own. There are a few backcountry rangers out there on the most popular trails, but otherwise, getting away from everyone is what my typical ideal of a vacation has been all about my entire life. Blizzards, lightning storm, fires, ya gotta learn how to navigate all of it on your own. Or just stay away in high risk circumstances, which certainly includes a lot of bone dry Western forest this summer.

Heroique
6-Jul-2015, 13:14
Please be careful out there, everyone. A photograph isn't worth being burned over.

Gives a whole new meaning to burning a print.

-----
Update to post #1: The Queets River fire (Wash. state) is growing, growing, growing – now the biggest fire in Olympic Nat'l Park history, currently covering 1,300 acres.

That's gigantic for a rain forest receiving more than 200 inches of rain each year, one of the wettest places in N. America.

And very likely a harbinger of a flame-filled summer/autumn for N. America, esp. the west coast states. :(


"The [Queets River] fire started after a warm winter prevented most of the snowpack from forming, followed by an exceedingly hot, dry spring that primed the forest for ignition. The result of this unusual alignment is what now ranks as the largest fire since the park was established, and might burn through the summer."

Source worth reading from The Seattle Times:
http://www.seattletimes.com/seattle-news/environment/burning-rain-forest-raises-concern-about-future/

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Sirius Glass
6-Jul-2015, 14:00
So Sirius, how are you gonna get that cell phone, CB, or whatever bandwidth to work unless you get out FIRST? None of those options are normally available to a backcountry traveler. A GPS rescue beacon might work or not, depending on local infrastructure, nature of terrain, and how backed up they are already. There are plenty of places in the West cell phones simply don't work. When I merely arrive at a typical trailhead that's true already. Then for the next week or two, you're on your own. There are a few backcountry rangers out there on the most popular trails, but otherwise, getting away from everyone is what my typical ideal of a vacation has been all about my entire life. Blizzards, lightning storm, fires, ya gotta learn how to navigate all of it on your own. Or just stay away in high risk circumstances, which certainly includes a lot of bone dry Western forest this summer.

Depending on the area, often amateur repeaters are available, otherwise get out first and then call by the first bandwidth available.

Randy Moe
6-Jul-2015, 14:27
Depending on the area, often amateur repeaters are available, otherwise get out first and then call by the first bandwidth available.

How about HAM sat relay?

AMSAT, ARRL is working on a tiny new HAM satellite.

http://www.amsat.org/

Sirius Glass
6-Jul-2015, 15:40
How about HAM sat relay?

AMSAT, ARRL is working on a tiny new HAM satellite.

http://www.amsat.org/

Yes that is possible, I just have not tried it yet.

Drew Wiley
6-Jul-2015, 16:32
Ha. Get out first? Even in the most populous state in the country, last time I smelled smoke in the high country I was three passes back and a week by foot to the
car, then quite a drive till any FS facility, which ironically would have been a fire lookout on a jeep road. Phone reception about half an hour past that. But they've
spotted the fire long before you anyway. That's their job.

tgtaylor
6-Jul-2015, 21:50
One thing about traveling in the Sierra, at least that section of it between Yosemite Park in the North and Mt. Whitney on the south of which I am familiar with, is that you're never more than one day from a road if you're in good shape. Once I managed to fracture a rib going over Seldon Pass and when I got to the junction with Paiute Creek (then a ragin' river) I decided to bail out over Paiute Pass which was a 17 mile hike from the junction with the JMT. I would venture to say that you're never more than 20 miles from a road in that section of the Sierra.

Now 20 miles is 20 miles and if you're in serious trouble 20 miles is way too far to travel. Having a satellite phone would come in handy. I remember hearing about a hiker that was rescued by helicopter at an altitude of 10,000 at night on the radio when traveling from the bay area to start a hike. He was suffering from acute appendicitis and the hospital spokesman said he would have died if he didn't make it to the hospital that night. We ran across the ranger that answered the call. He said hiked out that night and found him suffering from acute appendicitis and called for a rescue helicopter which came and got his to the hospital in Bishop or Mammoth in time.

Thomas

Drew Wiley
7-Jul-2015, 08:47
BS is you're never more than a day from the road. Yeah, I remember when I was young and in really really good shape. And now there's a club of extreme hikers who try to bag any peak within a 24hr window. In many cases that involves no pack at all except for a pouch with a raincoat and a few candy bars, and hallucinating on the way back after up to 18,000 feet of cumulative grade and over sixty miles of actual hiking. Get a twisted ankle or a sudden storm comes in, OR you're planned exist route gets unexpectedly blocked by smoke, and you're in real trouble if you don't have the right kind of experience. Not everyone takes a Sedgeway down the Muir Trail by any means. Some of that country you're lucky to make two miles a day over boulders the size of houses. I've spent most of my life getting off trail, and as you should know, Tom, the Sierras contain several of the deepest canyons on the contintent, some of which still have zero trails in them. One problem with rescue beacons is that they're part of all this damn electronic fad stuff that hikers seem to think they have to own and carry. I mean, I can't understand why
even I might want something like that in old age if I were out there alone. But flatlanders come up from LA and pick up a heavy roast beef sandwich in Bishop and stick it in their pack for lunch just before tackling Paiute Pass, and get up there and barf all over the place and trigger the rescue beacon. Well, back when
I ran into precisely that scenario, I had to drag the poor fellow all the way back downhill and put his on a bus. But nowadays, limited expensive resources get
tied up with that kind of thing, while someone in real trouble waits. Backcountry rangers have explained the dilemma to me. I a severe storm a number of
flatlanders might get over their heads with their damned REI glorified tennis shoes and handkerchief tents. I wasn't exactly in a Bibler myself a couple years
back, but was well pitched and comfy in solitude up in the headwaters of the Kings watching helicopters try to get in between storms and rescue a number of
parties stuck down on the Muir Trail below. That took quite awhile. If any of those choppers were diverted to a non-emergency, go figure. A couple people as it
is were hurt from rockfall, fortunately not severely. But further north, one fellow was lost almost a week with something like a broken ankle. And I've been around rescues where helicopters simply had nowhere to land, where very mountaineering crews could take over a day just to safely get them to one one
properly, plus all that time spent getting there in the first place on foot or ropes or whatever. Gosh - I once walked over 35 miles on two sprained ankles with
an 85 lb pack. Not fun, but just one more battle scar, and thank goodness for real boots that hold your feet together in some ordeal like that. Now for all those
hundreds of trips I've taken in the mountains, I can confidently state that a close call now and then is nothing compared to the hazards of simply commuting
Fwy 80 here every day, with people reading newspapers and punching laptop buttons, texting, etc, or outright unlicensed to begin with.

Randy Moe
7-Jul-2015, 08:56
Most of us are old enough that we should not be rescued, whether city, suburbia or back of beyond.

I hope to expire outside and alone with my maker.

:)

Drew Wiley
7-Jul-2015, 09:39
Yeah... If I can't stand a suit and tie today, or the burbs, why the heck would I want to be stuck in a velvet box under a lawn in those circumstances forever?

Sirius Glass
7-Jul-2015, 13:16
BS is you're never more than a day from the road. Yeah, I remember when I was young and in really really good shape. And now there's a club of extreme hikers who try to bag any peak within a 24hr window. ...

The advice I follow now:

“Anything more than 500 yards from the car just isn’t photogenic.” – Edward Weston
http://www.johnpaulcaponigro.com/blog/12034/23-quotes-by-photographer-edward-weston/#sthash.p9N6QuOp.dpuf

Drew Wiley
7-Jul-2015, 14:03
Well, anything less than 500 yards from the car will probably get you shot in deer season anyway. Or maybe 5 yards. Those once-a-year outdoor types are even
in worse shape than once-a-year outdoor photographers. As long as they can tote a pint of bourbon, they're happy.

Sirius Glass
7-Jul-2015, 15:46
Well, anything less than 500 yards from the car will probably get you shot in deer season anyway. Or maybe 5 yards. Those once-a-year outdoor types are even
in worse shape than once-a-year outdoor photographers. As long as they can tote a pint of bourbon, they're happy.

I do not know where you get the idea that I am a once a year guy.


If a deer hunter shoots at me, the next shot will be on target from me. It is legal because it is self defense. Are you volunteering for target practice?



Is your job assignment to harass and insult members or it that just your charming personality?

Drew Wiley
7-Jul-2015, 16:30
Hey, you were the one who re-quoted that Weston yardage thing. Relax. All I was implying (in jest) is what comes from a helluva lot of real-world outdoor experience knowing what goes on near Western roads, esp when fall color is doing its thing. The farther you get from the road, the safer you are. The deer know
it too. These guys shoot across roads, shoot drunk, "sound-shoot" at anything that rustles in the brush, shoot each other sometime. I wasn't implying you are one
of em. But talking macho means zero when some random bullet comes flying. How do you defend against that?

sun of sand
7-Jul-2015, 17:09
Get out the blue filter

Alan Klein
7-Jul-2015, 20:08
Do satellite phones work in heavy forested tree canopy?

Drew Wiley
8-Jul-2015, 08:35
Well I do carry a blue filter when I want to get open shadows and exaggerate the effects of atmosphere and distance. The landscape masters of the 19th prior
to panchromatic film used to do this wonderfully, since all their film saw was blue. Somehow ever since the era of AA etc, everybody forgot about it and it somehow became "wrong". But I carry a red filter too. And it's amazing how much smoke you can cut through with a red. One brief trip I climbed above most of
the damned forest fire smoke in Sequoia and was camped under some crags up on Mt Siliman where the air was at least breathable (except for inhaling a mosquito now and then). But I was tinkering with shots of the crags, first with silhouettes still largely obscured by smoke, then through the red filter. One of the big enlargements there was a golden eagle perched right on the spiky summit of one of the crags. I had no idea it was there. I could hardly even see the top of the crag when I took the shot. Dumb luck, I guess.