Wildfires are Worse Than Ever. Here’s What That Means for the Backcountry We Love

Backpacking Routes (August 2, 2021) by Hugh Owen

Jordan Todoroff tried three times in the summer of 2020 to take backpacking trips near his home in the San Francisco Bay Area, but each time was turned back by wildfires. He was shut out again by fires twice this year.

Jordan isn’t alone as wildfires fueled by years of drought are upending lives in the West. The National Interagency Fire Center reports 79 large fires have consumed 1.5 million acres across 12 states. More than 21,000 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to fires nationwide.

First and foremost are homes threatened or damaged by fires, and lives lost or endangered.

But what about backcountry adventurers who know too well the devastation from wildfires. Thru-hikers on the Pacific Crest and Continental Divide Trails frequently have to find alternate routes around fire closures. Charred trees surround the trails for years.

“It’s easy to feel cheated from the loss of prime summer backpacking in the California redwoods or the Sierra,” says Jordan, head of sales for clothing brand Ibex. “There are so many larger concerns, though. Climate change is going to make these events commonplace. I’ve grown up in California, and we never had fires like this. Every year we set new fire records. The extreme heat and lower snowpack will mean backcountry adventures in the summer will look very different, requiring masks for smoke or packing water into alpine environments.

“And then there’s the human suffering. Homes, towns, and human lives are being taken every year by the fires. Everyone I know has some friend or family member who has lost a home. Working in the outdoor industry, we’ve seen hundreds of customers walk into our stores declaring, ‘I just lost everything, so I need to buy some clothes so I have something to wear.’ ”

Scars From Fires Past

Hazel Rogerson of the JAM Collective, a public relations firm representing outdoor brands, lives in Portland, Oregon, and considers herself lucky that smoke in the city hasn’t been a problem this year.

“We’ve haven’t yet been affected by smoke from the wildfires burning in Southern Oregon or up north in Washington and Canada (knock on wood). Last year, Portland was forced indoors for a few weeks due to horrendous air quality from the surrounding fires. As someone with asthma, I definitely feel the affects.

“On a camping trip a few months back we drove through an area that had been heavily damaged by the Holiday Farm Fire last year. It was a pretty sobering reminder of the worsening fire conditions here in the Pacific Northwest that not only threaten wild spaces, but homes and businesses as well. That same trip we also saw the effects of this year’s drought. We were really shocked to pull up to our site and realize that the river we swam in this time last year had been reduced to a creek. I’ve never seen anything like it. Three-story banks that are usually underwater were now exposed and covered in tall grasses and shrubs.”

Likewise, Bonie Shupe, general manager and director of product at Ibex, has seen firsthand the devastation from fires in previous years.

“This year has been good to us with moisture but the fires last year raged all around where I live in Nederland, Colorado,” she says. “Multiple years we’ve had people who have stayed with us because they cannot go home. A few years ago, we were out of town for one of the fires. A bunch of people ended up with a base camp out of our house; I hear we had chickens in the living room.”

Fires Everywhere

Sometimes the fires disrupt backpacking trips, as Jordan found when he tried multiple times last year to set off on backpacking trips in California. Each time he was turned back by fires.

Jordan says his first planned trip was the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail near his home in the San Francisco Bay Area. But the CZU Lightning Complex fires in late summer into early fall consumed Big Basin Redwoods State Park along the trail, dashing those plans.

He pivoted to trying for permits to hike at Point Reyes National Seashore, but the Woodward Fire ravaged Point Reyes.

“With our northern and western options eliminated, we looked south to Big Sur,” Jordan says. “The Dolan Fire began the same day as the Woodward Fire in Point Reyes, ultimately burning over 100,000 acres of pristine California coastal wilderness. Simultaneously, almost 400,000 burning acres in the Diablo Range meant a trip east was no longer a possibility. We were surrounded on all sides by fires, so the trip never happened.”

Unwilling to give up, he hoped to do the Skyline-to-the-Sea Trail this past spring. But much of the trail remained closed in the aftermath of the fire.

Still, as he prepares to move to Colorado, Jordan wanted to say farewell to California with a backpacking trip in Lassen Volcanic National Park.

“That dream died just yesterday with closures caused by the Dixie Fire,” he says.

Matthew J. Nelson, executive director of the Arizona Trail Association, also knows what it’s like for a wildfire to upset hiking plans.

“Just this summer I had planned a backpacking trip with my family in the Sawtooth Mountains of Idaho,” Matthew says. “Wildfire smoke from Oregon was so bad that we had to change our plans and avoid the area altogether. This summer was the first time I used an air quality app to determine the safest areas to travel so we could breathe. With wildfires raging across the West, we found a pocket of clean air in the High Uinta Mountains of northern Utah.”

What We’ve Lost

“I trail run a lot and end up running through all the damage from the fires,” Bonie says. “It affects every summer of my life as well as many of the spaces I hold dear. There are times I feel like I should relocate because who knows when the next fire will roll through and devastate my life.”

Jordan says it is difficult for him to name just one favorite backcountry spot in California affected by wildfires.

“The truth is, I don’t know a place here that isn’t threatened. I’ve been lucky and haven’t lost my home. Many others cannot say the same, and many will continue to need our support going forward as they are displaced. Firefighters are putting their well-being on the line, and they deserve our active support as well.”

And Ibex is seeing to it that firefighters get the support they need.

“One of the things we do at Ibex and are working on right now is to send care kits to fire stations around the West,” Bonie says. “It’s important to us to do what we can to rally and let service professionals know we are grateful for their service.”

Matthew also mourns the loss of favorite hiking spots.

“Two of my absolute favorite segments of the Arizona Trail have been scorched by fires over the past year,” he says. “This includes a segment on the Kaibab Plateau in northern Arizona (burned by the Mangum Fire in 2020) and in the Sonoran Desert south of Picketpost Mountain in central Arizona (burned by the Telegraph Fire in 2021). Both segments are currently closed, and are likely to remain closed for a long time.”

Outdoor recreation is especially susceptible to the smoke generated by fires.

“Because California has such a high population, entire communities have been wiped out by the fires,” Jordan says. “As those houses burn, they produce smoke from burning plastic, paints, household chemicals, and various other caustic materials. That smoke makes it impossible to hike, climb, cycle, or otherwise exert oneself. Days have passed where I couldn’t see my local mountain.”

The same goes for Matthew in Arizona.

“There have been more days this summer when the air quality makes it impossible to get outdoors than clear days,” he says. “Even if fires are hundreds of miles away, we still feel the effects. Forests need to burn, and we are paying the price of 100 years of mismanagement, and I sincerely hope land management agencies take forest health and climate change seriously.”

The Long View

Drought and wildfires caused by climate change are only expected to become worse in the years ahead.

“Climate change is wreaking havoc on the Arizona Trail, and outdoor recreation as a whole in the West,” Matthew says. “Catastrophic wildfires, forest closures due to drought, and disappearing water sources are making it really hard to hike and ride across landscapes that have historically been a respite for outdoor adventurers like me.”

Jordan, too, fears the long-term effects of climate change.

“Our ecology won’t recover from this for many years,” he says. “Sensitive species are dying, and pristine forest is gone.

“For now, my part of the state hasn’t suffered conflagration. It’s still early in the fire season, and the drought is extremely concerning. The extreme weather and dry water sources mean I’m packing an extra two liters of water all the time, just in case. I swap my cloth mask for an N95 to filter smoke particulate.

“So far, we’ve been lucky with the winds from the fires up north, so smoke pollution has been low. That won’t last forever. I think it’s likely the home I’m leaving behind in California will be severely impacted by fires in years to come. I was evacuated last year. I’m relocating to Colorado near Boulder next month, and I’ll be keeping my same packed bag for evacuations there.”

Stay Safe When Fires Threaten

Know before you go: Go online to check the area where you’re planning to hike. InciWeb and AirNow.gov/fires are good sources for information on wildfires nationwide. The Pacific Crest Trail Association and the Continental Trail Divide Coalition also post information about wildfires and fire safety.

Act quickly: Wildfires can move faster than you can run, so be aware of your surroundings. Avoid ridges if there’s a fire nearby because fire typically moves faster uphill than it does downhill.

Watch the smoke: Pay attention to nearby columns of smoke. Winds can shift wildfires quickly, and a fire that appears at a safe distance could change course and move quickly toward you.

Plan an escape route: Be prepared to take an alternate trail to escape an approaching fire.

Breathe easier: Download an air quality app for your phone.


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