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

  1. #1
    Land-Scapegrace Heroique's Avatar
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    LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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.

    Click image for larger version. 

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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?

  2. #2
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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.

  3. #3

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

    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).

  4. #4
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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.

  5. #5

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

    Call Fatali to make sure he's not shooting down there.

  6. #6
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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.

  7. #7
    Drew Wiley
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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.

  8. #8
    Randy Moe's Avatar
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    That Canadian fire's smoke is clearly? visible in Chicago and often reported as a climate factor here.

    We see it, we smell it.
    TIN CAN COLLEGE

  9. #9
    tgtaylor's Avatar
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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

  10. #10
    Jac@stafford.net's Avatar
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    Re: LFers -- you're in a dry wilderness. You smell smoke. What's your plan?

    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.

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