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M Walking on Fire: A Light-Hiker's Guide to Wildfire Awareness, Survival, and Evasion (Part 1 of 3)

by Andrew Mattox

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Article Summary:

You're six days through a week-long thru-hike, making good time. It's a brilliant, bluebird day. You've gone light on food, but it feels so good to be out in the mountains that you hardly notice. Your spouse is meeting you at the trailhead, only ten miles ahead. You crest the final pass and gaze downvalley.

Your chest tightens. The forest canopy is awash in pale gray smoke, rising upslope towards the ridgeline. Although no flame is visible from here, it's clearly a big fire, at least a quarter-mile across. Vertically, it stretches from just above valley-bottom to timberline - and the trail goes right through the heart of it. As if on cue, an usually large puff of smoke and dust emerges from the near edge. A moment later, a muffled, clattering crash echoes through the valley: the sound of a big tree falling. Your heart rate jumps. You've got 2,100 calories of food left and no communications equipment. You're in trail shoes. Your ride is on the other side of the burn.

You stop, breath deeply, and wash the jolt of adrenaline form your system. First, you realize, you need to assess the fire and terrain. Only then can you form a plan.

As light hikers, we cover large distances and travel more deeply into remote areas than many other wilderness users. As a result, we're more likely than most wilderness users to encounter uncontrolled and unreported fires. Fortunately, the same factors which increase this likelihood - light loads, mobility, speed, and comfort in the backcountry - also make the light hiker unusually well-suited to respond to such a situation.

How do you assess the fire and anticipate its movement? What do you do?

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