Navigating Wildfires and Smoke

Navigating Wildfires and Smoke

The past, present, and future of wildfires in the U.S., especially the West is significant with both fire and smoke altering the environment making us account for the way we live and play so it doesn’t come as “Breaking News” to the outdoor community when the EPA says…

“In recent decades, the Western United States has seen heightened wildfire activity, characterized by a higher frequency of large wildfires, a longer fire season, larger fire size, and a greater total area burned. With projected temperature increases, soil moisture reduction, and more frequent air stagnation, the burden of wildfires on air quality, public health, and environmental management will likely increase”, or that “Smoke from wildland fires and prescribed burning is now a major component of air pollution in the United States.”

During certain times of the year smoke seems to be everywhere and declining air quality indexes seem to becoming the summer norm out here in the West forcing people out of the forest, off their own city streets, and into the bunker called home where they are in some cases inside looking out for weeks at a time.

I have as a hiker, backpacker, and runner sought sanctuary in the gym with increasing frequency due to poor air quality last year during July and August and this year since late July and counting we use to try to find blue skies and cleaner air by having multiple trip options but this year in Washington State as well as others there are so many large wildfires that there is essentially nowhere to go so with predictions of the worst is yet to come what can you do to monitor air quality and prepare yourself for potential wildfires and smoke ?

Monitoring Air Quality

The United States has an in place system of Air Quality measuring sites throughout the entire country where data is collected from sensors and these samples are assigned a numerical number associated with a written air quality level and each level is also associated with a color code. The Air Quality Index can be found on AirNow a government website which serves as a centralized location for the accumulation and distribution of current and forecasted air quality. This index when known will tell you the air quality as well as provide very general activity guidelines using a scale of “Good to Hazardous”.

Take Appropriate Precautions based on the AQI

Monitor Trip Logistics

You should be monitoring relevant news sources and websites that give you travel information from the starting line at home to the trailhead making sure you can access your destination as well as the trail system and backcountry that lies beyond. I have had the personal experience of finding out that new wildfires have started or grown dramatically or trails and wilderness areas have been closed as I prepared to head out the door on trips as well as upon arriving at distant trailheads after hours of driving. It is always prudent to “know before you go” by checking with reliable hiking, backpacking, and climbing forums in the area as well as relevant public agencies which can include the State Dept. of Transportation, Ranger Districts, InciWeb, National Forest Service, National Park Service, Bureau of Land management etc…, doing so will give you a heads up on the probability of encountering both wildfires, smoke, and any trip restrictions. Airnow will give you the current Air Quality Index (AQI) in the general area you plan to travel into but be aware there can be a significant difference in the AQI with in a few miles and /or few thousand feet of elevation of the closest monitoring site readings you can get.

Take a Particulate Respirator

If there are wildfires in the region the air quality can change to unhealthy or hazardous fairly quickly due to changing wind direction, calm, or stagnant winds. The particulate matter in wildfire smoke can be very hazardous to your health so if you have packed the appropriate lightweight particulate respirator in with your gear proactively you will be be doing yourself a favor and your cardiorespiratory system will thank you. The recommended masks for use in filtering wildfire smoke are the N95 or N100.



There is plenty to think about when navigating wildfire and smoke are part of your trip considerations. Should I stay or should I go ? There are plenty of resources to guide your judgement but be prepared sometimes the decision will be made for you due to restrictions and closures while at other times you will have to make some serious decisions. Be informed. Happy Trails !

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