The forecast called for blue skies and temperatures in the mid 70s — a “perfect day for hiking,” some would say — when the Plumtaw fire sparked last month north of Pagosa Springs.
Conditions were also pretty good for a fast-moving fire to rush through the heavy forest toward a popular trail that guides backpackers, day hikers and anglers to an alpine lake and the thundering cascades of Fourmile Creek.
It took only a few hours for the fire, which was reported about 1 p.m. May 17, to grow to more than 600 acres, creeping within 150 feet of Fourmile Road, fire officials said.
Upper San Juan Search and Rescue Member Terry Arrington was helping redirect traffic to allow fire trucks and large equipment up the road, when he got the call about possible stranded hikers at the Fourmile trailhead, where three cars were parked.
The trailhead marks the beginning of two trails and when he got there, Arrington didn’t know exactly where to look for the hikers. And there were no recent log-ins in the notebook posted at the trailhead, he said.
All of the hikers got out safely, but logging in would have been a huge help to Arrington and the search and rescue crew making a plan to get the hikers out to safety as quickly as possible, he said.
“I know a lot of people see those signs in those boxes and they just walk right past them,” Arrington said. “And so we had no idea how many people went up there, when they went in, what their plans were. In this case, it was a matter of somewhat urgency and not having that knowledge of what we were going into was kind of frustrating.”
Knowing the risk of wildfire and having a plan of action in the event a fire sparks while hiking along a trail in Colorado has become a baseline safety precaution, experts say, especially as wildfire season extends to include most of the year and fires become more intense and more frequent.
“One of our slogans is: ‘Know before you go’ and I think that encompasses everything you might encounter in the backcountry,” Cindy Howard with the Colorado Search and Rescue Association said. “Whether it’s avalanche, lightning, heavy rain and hail storms — wildfire is just another thing that everyone needs to be prepared for in the backcountry.”
The Colorado Sun talked to emergency responders, search and rescue members and fire experts to compile a list of helpful tips and resources to be wildfire-aware and prepared while planning a hike in Colorado.
How to mitigate risk when planning a hike
Safety precautions while hiking in Colorado, during wildfire season or not, are important to follow, Anna Battiste, who is also with the Colorado Search and Rescue Foundation said.
“All the same basics still apply,” Battiste said. For any hike in Colorado, Battiste encourages hikers to keep in mind the “three T’s.”
- Trip plan: Tell a friend and family member about where you are going, the route you are taking, what trailhead you parked at and when you expect to be back
- Training: Make sure you have the physical conditioning and ability for the hike you are doing
- Take the 10 essentials: Bring sun protection, food and water, a first-aid kit, a headlamp and flashlight, a repair kit and tools, extra clothes for the coldest weather possible, navigation tools, an emergency shelter (such as an emergency bivy) and a fire source (waterproof matches or a lighter).
As fire seasons extend further into the year and conditions become drier across the West, being prepared if a wildfire sparks while traversing local trails or through the backcountry is also key, said Carrie Bilbao, a public affairs specialist with the National Interagency Fire Center.
“Every summer, we’re going to have that potential for a wildfire in an area where somebody’s going to hike or camp,” said Bilbao, who served 26 years as a prevention officer for the Bureau of Land Management.
It’s common for people to plan months in advance for a hike, especially if the area requires a permit to camp or park at the trailhead, but being flexible with an alternate destination is important if fire activity shuts down trails or makes it unsafe to recreate, she said.
“So you might not know a week before, a few days before,” she said. “That’s the thing about fires, they can strike at any time. You can be on your way and a big fire occurs in that area.”
- Have a “Plan B” in the case a fire does break out with some possible alternate destinations to explore. Don’t head into a dangerous or unhealthy area just because you don’t want to change your plans.
- Know your escape routes while planning your hike. Returning on the same trail you came up from your car is the ideal way out to seek safety, but if that’s not a possibility, look for other possible escape routes or safety zones, such as a boulder field, a lake or a green grassy meadow out of the forest, suggests Howard with Colorado Search and Rescue.
Resources to check before you hike
Experts recommended checking the following resources before you start exploring:
- Know where fires are currently burning. InciWeb.org is an interagency platform where local fire managers provide details of fires across Colorado and the country including location of the fire, size and containment, and evacuation orders. Local government and law enforcement Facebook pages are also good resources to get the latest information on fire activity in the area. If you’re crossing county lines while backpacking, identify which pages to check before you go.
- Check the weather forecast. High winds, extreme heat and lightning all raise the risk of fire activity in the area, Bilbao with the National Fire Interagency Center said.
- Check local smoke forecasts and air quality. Online tools to monitor the air-quality index, measuring airborne particulate matter, can help give a sense of the health risk before hitting a trail. An air-quality index above 100 will likely be harmful to someone with asthma or other health conditions, according to the EPA. A level 150 or above is harmful to anyone.
Type the ZIP code where you plan to hike at AirNow.Gov and you’ll find the air quality forecast for the day. For a longer-term prediction, try Firesmoke.ca, which includes a map of all major fires across the country and smoke levels about two days out.
The National Oceanic Atmospheric Administration also has a state-by-state smoke-monitoring tool that allows you to monitor surface smoke levels.
“There’s a good chance we’ll have smoke that may not be associated with a local fire,” Howard said. “You have to be doubly alert to see if the smoke is local or not.”
- Register for emergency alerts. Most Colorado counties have an opt-in emergency text message/email system to warn people of evacuation orders. Know which county you are hiking or backpacking in and sign up to receive alerts.
- Know local burn restrictions if you are planning to build a campfire or use a camp stove. If you aren’t near a body of water, plan to carry enough to fully extinguish the fire so that you create a slurry and that the coals are cool to the touch. Most burn restrictions are posted on county government or sheriff office’s websites or social media pages.
Pack your gear with wildfire on your mind
Electric gadgets can fail, or run out of juice, so bringing analog alternatives to the latest tech can be a good idea.
- Paper map. These are always helpful to pack, especially if you don’t have cellphone service, if your phone dies or if you need to locate alternate trails to seek safety. “Depending on circumstances in a wildfire, cellphone towers might be the first to fail,” Howard said.
- Signal mirror. Rescue pilots may have a hard time spotting you, especially if it’s smoky, so carrying a mirror and knowing how to use it is important to signal aerial crews. (Practice before you go!)
- NOAA weather radio, which broadcasts all National Weather Service warnings, watches and forecasts 24/7.
- Battery bank. Try to preserve your cellphone battery in case you need it to call 911 or call a friend who may be able to relay more information about the fire and the direction it’s headed.
“In the event the 911 operators are overwhelmed, I would have some other contacts in your communication plan,” Howard said.
- Satellite messenger, especially if you plan to be in the backcountry without cellphone service and you are traveling a significant distance from the trailhead or road. A Garmin InReach allows for two-way communication.
- Face covering, in case you’re in a valley and smoke starts to settle in.
At the trailhead
- Sign your name and number of people you’re traveling with at the notebooks posted at trailheads or campgrounds so that if a fire breaks out, fire officials know who is out there.
- Turn your phone on airplane mode and close all the apps you don’t need or aren’t using, to preserve your phone’s battery.
Bringing a cellphone is helpful, even if your service is too weak to send a text or make a call along the trail. Cell service may be available higher up on a mountain and search and rescue teams can ping the device to determine your location.
- “Park like a firefighter,” Howard recommends, by backing in when parking at the trailhead to avoid “wasting seconds during an evacuation trying to back out of a spot.”
What to do you if you see smoke on the trail
Swift action may be required if a fire sparks, as seen in October 2020 when a wildfire broke out along one of southwest Colorado’s most popular trails and dozens of hikers were trapped above the fire. Rescuers helped save the lives of 28 hikers and three dogs along the Ice Lakes trail, west of Silverton in the San Juan mountain range.
By the time a group of hikers rushed down the mountain in search of cellphone service to call 911, the fire was out of control, The Associated Press reported. The fire soon engulfed the entire trailhead and began moving uphill.
Twenty-three of the hikers were rescued by helicopter near an alpine lake at roughly 9,800 feet after they saw smoke and decided to turn back toward the lake and call 911, Jim Donovan, director of the office of emergency management in San Juan County said.
The hikers’ decision to move toward an open area with water was a really good idea, Donovan said. Any area that has little vegetation and rocks can provide protection, he said.
Jumping in the alpine lake to escape the fire could be a last resort, Donovan said, warning of the chilling temperatures of alpine waters and the potential of hypothermia.
The 596-acre fire, which started about 75 feet from the Ice Lakes Trail and burned for about a week, was later determined to be human-caused.
“For us it was a wake-up call with the Ice fire because it was so late in the season,” Donovan said.
If you see smoke, maintain situational awareness and keep an eye on the smoke and what direction it is moving.
If you can’t get to the trailhead, look for a way out in an area with lighter fuels that may not burn as intensely. Avoid chutes, as fire travels fastest uphill.
- Smoke columns bend in the direction the fire is moving. So, if a column looks like it is bending toward you, try to go in the opposite direction, Bilbao said.
- Light, white smoke typically means there’s a fast-moving fire burning grassy or light fuels.
- Dark smoke usually indicates thick brush or timber is burning. These fires could be longer lasting and have the potential for “spotting,” as the wind carries embers and sparks fires further through the forest or across fire breaks, like rivers or highways, Bilbao said.
Howard, who also works with Deer Mountain Fire Protection District, recommends remaining calm, but don’t wait to evacuate. If you can’t get out, call or text 911 and have your coordinates handy, she added.
“Just like we say with climbing the fourteeners — ‘live to climb another day’ — if you see smoke and fire in your area, call the weekend short and evacuate safely and early.”