During our stay in Osoyoos in May 2014 a wildfire in the hills above us created a bit of anxiety for us due mainly to smoke. Our air conditioner/dehumidifier trick worked so we were not forced to leave the exceptionally nice campground/resort we were staying at.
We have had our fair share of severe weather near misses. Some of those near misses have just been due to our own dumb luck. Most have been because we have been aware and alert and reacted quickly. This post is on wildfires.
We are always very aware of smoke because I have asthma. Smoke can trigger terrible attacks where I feel like I am dying. Even with medication, it is a miserable experience to be around smoke. My eyes water and my nose fills and I wheeze for days, even weeks, after a severe attack. I feel miserable and exhausted long after I can breath again. We are hyperconscious of smoke. Smoke also has another function. It serves as a warning for fire. Since I am hypersensitive to smoke I have also become hypersensitive to fire.
There are two kinds of “outside” fires to be concerned while camping. Prescribed burns and wildfires. Prescribed burns are those fires that someone in a position of authority is in charge of deliberately starting the fire. Prescribed fires are supposed to occur in a specific place, for a specific time and then end. Wild fires are fires that occur without someone in authority declaring themselves in charge and starting it. It is important to keep in mind that prescribed burns used to be called controlled burns but the term has gone out of favour. Presumably the term “controlled” was changes to “prescribed” because of the number of controlled burns that get out of control and become wildfires.
We have had one hair singeing experience driving through fire. We generally avoid interstates and main road and seek backroad routes where the scenery is prettier and unexpected brushes with nature are common. We were driving north somewhere on the Georgia/Florida. I am not sure what side of the state line we were when it happened. The highway was in superb shapes, recently paved and lovely traveling through low rolling hills with creeks, swamps and evergreens. Between the trees I was getting an occasional view of a limited area of thick smoke ahead but as it seemed to be limited and off to the northeast I wasn’t concerned. My husband was sound asleep behind me. I drove around a bend at 90km (55mph) and suddenly there was fire on both sides of the road. The fire was mainly in the grass and brush but some fire went from ground level up to the treetops of the evergreens. The road we were on was narrow, far too narrow to turn around and go back while towing an RV. With flames all around, stopping seemed like a bad idea too. I had two propane tanks among other flammable items. The smoke and heat was all around. I made a split second decision to speed up and hope the road was open beyond where the fire was burning. To keep my courage up I began softly singing Rodney Atkins “If you’re going through hell.” I sang softly because I didn’t want to wake my husband. I had enough to handle. If we were about to die, he might as well sleep to the last minute. Under the circumstances less distraction was a needful thing.
If you’re going through hell keep on moving,
face that fire, walk [I sang “drive”] right through,
you might get out before the devil even knows you’re there.
It didn’t take too long to get out. I got about halfway through the song and as abruptly as the fire had appeared, we rolled on past it and it was over. There was green again on both sides. At the edge of the fire there were two country sheriff types, assorted police cars and some firetrucks with a barrier on the entry side of the burn. Fortunately, the exit side was clear so I aimed straight, and barrelled right on through without braking. I got a passing glimpse of several startled and dismayed looks on the faces of the police and firemen as I went by. I considered stopping to tell someone off for not putting roadblocks on both sides of the fire. I watched to see if anyone would come after me. On this side of the fire we were downwind and the smoke was pretty thick so, since there were no flashing lights, I just kept driving. As soon as we were clear of the smoke I woke my husband up and told him what had just happened.
I don’t know if this fire was a prescribed burn or if it had just happened. I don’t know if the Georgia side didn’t tell the Florida side what was going on. Maybe the traffic had been blocked further back and in taking backroads and shortcuts we missed the roadblock. Maybe the roadblock went up after we went by. In any case, we got lucky and the only real damage we had was to our nerves. A few weeks later we can began having trouble starting the truck. The Winnipeg mechanic came out from under the hood, with the air intake sensor in hand to ask me if I knew what was on it. The sensor was covered with a thick layer of stinky, gummy material that smelled of smoke and turpentine. I told him about our little trial by fire and he walked off, shaking his head, to put in a new sensor. The cost of that came to $45 which I figure was cheap.
I did an online search to see if there were any more tales of campers who were trapped or killed by wildfires. I was unable to find any specific references but I certainly found plenty of “campers start forest fire” stories. It would seem the most likely way for a camper or RVer to end up in a wildfire is to start is themselves. The first thing to do to protect yourself against wildfires is therefore to be incredibly careful with your own fire. If you are in a place that is at high risk for fire, or if conditions are right to spread a fire, just don’t light one. If a fire ban is on, respect it. If you do light a fire, even in the middle of a swamp, have a bucket of water, shovel or a fire extinguisher handy. Even swamps can burn.
If you are camping in a forest or desert, especially a big national forest on a long back road, it is a good idea to check the local fire situation before you get out of cell phone range. Prescribed burns are generally announced on websites somewhere. The local sheriff’s office or fire department also usually know if there is a planned burn. The alert system is not foolproof. If a fire starts, everyone who sees it may assume it is a prescribed burn or that someone else has already reported it. If you see smoke and fire, be the one who calls in to check that authorities know what is going on. If they already know, they can give you useful information such as if you need to be worried and how long the burning is going to go on. If you smell smoke, investigate, don’t assume.
Fires that are burning at any given time, whether prescribed or wildfire, are also followed for speed and direction with regular updates and reports. Check the weather forecast too, because the forecasts often include fire hazard information and smoke reports as well. Determine where the fire is relative to your position and the direction of the wind. Camping in smoke is a miserable experience and you may decide you want to move before it gets bad.
Just as with flooding, before you set up, know what the routes in and our are and have plans for how you will handle a fast evacuation if you have to. Don’t count on that nearby lake for fire protection. If a major forest fire moves through the area where you are there may well be firestorms that suck all the oxygen out of the air or firenados (moving columns of air that act like tornados with fires carried inside) can be deadly even in water. It is always better to have cleared out well before the fire arrives. Leave diving into that lake or river as the last possible desperate resort in a fire and not your front line of defence.
If you do find yourself in the unfortunate position of having to confront a wildfire and you don’t have water to go to, remember, fire likes to move up and with the wind. Fire also has a moving front where the worst of the flames are. Fire moves in fits and starts so it is sometimes possible to move downward relative to the land and then into the wind and end up behind the fire. Beyond the moving front, most of the material to feed the fire is already consumed so the fire remaining is far less intense. In grass, that moving front is relatively narrow so given a choice between burning trees and burning grass, the open meadow is the better of two bad options. Forest fires often travel on the forest floor and are stopped by roads, at least until flying sparks ignite on the other side. The most dangerous fire is the crown fire with flames racing from treetop to treetop and then burning higher material drops fire to ignite the floor below. Therefore roads, especially those wide enough to not have treetops overhead, can provide safety in a fire.
One final tip, if you are stuck in a slightly smokey location and you can’t move your rig out, try closing all windows and doors and running the air conditioner. If you have a dehumidifier run that as well which helps even more. We have found the smoke particles ride along with any water and the air conditioner condenses water (and smoke particles) while cooling and discharges it. The dehumidifier takes care of the rest of it.
We have one other safety item that we take comfort from. We purchased them on line after ending up in our truck in heavy smoke near a controlled burn. There was no danger from the fire itself but the smoke produced was low, dense and blanketed everything. I was choking in full asthmatic flare. We decided we would be ready if this happened again so we purchased two of those small portable face mask/air filter combinations that provide about 20 minutes of clean air. There are several brands on the market of various prices and effectiveness. We found a type, ReadiMask, that is disposable, light and small and flat (think thick greeting card envelope size). It works for smoke including covering the eyes. It stays ready in the glove compartment of the truck just in case we’re ever stuck in traffic in thick smoke again. A second pair is hung inside the trailer door in case we ever find ourselves having to move fast outside in thick smoke after waking up in the trailer. It is not the best possible protection but the combination of easy storage and access, and ease of use while being cheap ($8 each) made it a perfect fit at the time. This is technology that is constantly evolving and improving so in spite of the fact that we chose ReadiMasks, I would recommend checking out all options before buying. There might be something even better out there by now.