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How To Stay Safe While Traveling During Wildfires

How To Stay Safe While Traveling During Wildfires

Christine Pilla on September 18, 2022

Every year, wildfires destroy communities, infrastructure, homes and lives. If they seem to be a bigger deal each season, it’s because over the years, wildfire activity has increased exponentially. In fact, since 1983 the United States has seen a 223% increase in wildfires. More recently, from 2019 to 2021 it jumped 17%. In 2020 alone, California experienced 5 of the worst fires in its history![1]

What is causing the sharp increase?

Wildfires are a year-round threat, but they can be especially dangerous during the summer. Climate change is a major factor and the increase of dry weather and high temperatures makes it easy for wildfires to start and spread quickly, especially in areas with a lot of vegetation. Unfortunately, human carelessness is also a leading cause of wildfires, with an average of 90% of them determined to be started this way.

As an increasingly common part of the ecosystem, you will most likely end up planning a trip during wildfire season. Whether you are traveling to a wildfire-prone area or just passing through, here are 5 ways to keep yourself and your family safe as you set out.

Stay updated on current conditions

Wildfires can change fast, and it’s good to keep an eye on the current conditions along your route and at your destination. Check the National Interagency Fire Center or the Weather Network for notable closures along your route.

For even faster updates, regularly check social media and the local news to know both the current status of active fires and the chances of a new one starting where you are traveling to.

Avoid Wildfire Areas When Possible

It seems obvious to avoid wildfire-prone areas, but sometimes it simply can’t be avoided, as almost every area in North America is considered at high risk for wildfires during the summer and fall. Because most are started by lightning or human error, even the most advanced technology can’t predict when and where they will start. Thankfully, with some planning, you can be prepared for any situation.

It’s easy to think a wildfire is far enough away that it won’t affect you while traveling, especially if the highways are still open. But wildfires are unpredictable, and it’s good to be ready for the situation to change fast and possibly disrupt your travel.

For example, even if you are not within close proximity to an active fire, the smoke can travel for hundreds of miles. Not only can it reduce visibility to zero very quickly, but it can also make it hard to breathe. If you find yourself in this situation, use a face mask or piece of dry cloth to help filter the smoke from your lungs.

It’s always a good idea to take the time to decide on an alternate route in case a fire breaks out along the one you currently have planned, or if there’s a smoke warning.

Prepare for the unexpected

Nothing is more frustrating than missing an event because you were waiting for hours in unexpected traffic, so make sure you have a full tank of gas and leave yourself plenty of time!

It’s also a good idea to have extra supplies on hand should your delays get longer, or you come across someone that needs help.

Essential items to pack in your vehicle are: -First Aid kit -Necessary medications -Protective clothing (long sleeved shirts, pants, sensible shoes, hat) -Wool blankets (it’s not as flammable as synthetic material) -Bottled water -Digital copies of important documents -Portable radio -Flashlight -Spare batteries -Non-perishable snacks

Store all of the supplies in a tote in the back, so they are easy to find when you need them.

If you find yourself in the unfortunate situation of driving through an active wildfire, smoke inhalation is the biggest risk you face. The following measures will help keep you as safe and comfortable as possible:

-Keep your headlights on all of the time, even in daylight -If smoke is getting into your vehicle, cover your face and skin with dry fabric -Keep your windows rolled up -Turn off the air conditioning and heating systems. Instead, use the recycled air setting to draw in as little smoke as possible -Avoid stopping your vehicle on the side of the highway

Use common sense

As we said above, approximately 90% of fires are started by human error. Nobody wants to be responsible for a wildfire, but most are caused by the smallest actions that we don’t even think about.
To avoid accidentally starting on yourself, keep these things in mind:

● Avoid using anything flammable, like fireworks or guns when there is a fire ban ● Don’t dispose of cigarettes out the car window ● While traveling, don’t park or idle your car near dry grass. ● Drive slow and obey all signs ● Keep campfires to a reasonable size and always have a bucket of water handy

Taking a few extra minutes to make sure campfires are out and cigarettes are extinguished will go a long way in keeping everyone safe and your trip as enjoyable as possible!

Be Patient with firefighters and traffic controllers

Where there is a wildfire, there are firefighters and traffic controllers crews at work. They know you have places to go, but their main job is to keep you safe, and they take it seriously. Respect the road closures and detours put in place by professionals.

It may seem like it would be harmless to take a shortcut around the detours or try to make it before the fire gets too close, but it is not a good idea. Even if the fire isn’t visible to you, you have no way of knowing what the whole situation is. For example, the area could be at high risk for smoke to drop visibility to zero with a sudden wind shift.

Fighting and trying to contain fires 100 percent is expensive and unrealistic. Instead, the State and agencies responsible for handling wildfires sometimes let the fire burn because of the benefits wildfires provide the ecosystem.

Sometimes, agencies execute controlled burning, also referred to as prescribed fire, by lighting predetermined areas to limit the spread of fire by containing it to specific areas.

Firefighting crews don’t want to get in the way of your travel plans, they want to make sure you get there as safely as possible. Respecting their directions will not only help you get through the affected area safely, but it will also help them return home to their families too. Take the time to thank them when possible. Their job is one of the most taxing jobs in the world, and a little appreciation goes a long way!


Wildfires are unpredictable. Despite your best efforts, there’s always a chance you will find yourself closer to one than you would like, but hopefully, these tips will help you feel as prepared as possible!