For the past month I have been watching the Ferguson Fire, a 100,000-acre blaze on the western outskirts of Yosemite National Park, to assess and predict its effects on my planned backpacking trip there next week. I had to change my destination airport (to Reno instead of Fresno) and I’m expecting some smoke, but fortunately the fire has been brought under control.
Other backpackers this summer have been less lucky, and have been forced to endure thick smoke or to reschedule, relocate, or cancel their trips. Notable closures (both full and partial) have been ordered in San Juan National Forest, Philmont Scout Ranch, Yosemite National Park, Glacier National Park, and the Grand Canyon.
Wildfires and smoke are a fact of life (and probably increasing so) in the semi-arid West, which receives the bulk of its moisture in the winter and which gets dried out during the summer by scorching temperatures and relentless sunshine. In this tutorial, I’d like to share strategies and resources to better manage these factors and to increase your odds for unimpeded summertime fun.
How can backpackers best manage the risk of wildfires and smoke?
1. Schedule purposefully
After a winter with normal precipitation, July seems to be the most reliable month for backpacking. The snowpack has just melted off, and peak summertime temperatures have not yet dried everything out. Unfortunately, July also coincides with peak mosquito season (view my recommended clothing system).
August and September are higher risk months. Hopefully, just before your trip an active monsoon pattern or an early-winter storm suppresses fire activity or blows out lingering smoke.
Scheduling challenges are greater after drier winters. July becomes in-play for fire activity. The conditions in August and September are almost inevitable. And June does not necessarily become the preferred month: lower elevations can be scorched by long days and high temperatures, and higher elevations may not yet be melted out.
2. Have a Plan B
If your planned trip becomes impractical (e.g. closure of the CDT through San Juan National Forest, thick smoke on the John Muir Trail), do you have a backup plan? Yes, you will need to plan two different trips (which means two permits, two map sets, and two travel plans), but that extra effort may prove worthwhile.
3. Have flexible reservations, or travel insurance
It can be difficult to cancel flights, car rentals, and motel rooms without being charged fees or losing your deposits. When booking travel, try to maintain flexibility (e.g. by flying Southwest Airlines or buying a fully refundable fare) so that you’re not financially committed to a plan. Or, buy travel insurance so that you can recoup losses later.
Where can you find current information about wildfires and smoke?
InciWeb is an interagency all-risk incident information management system, and is the best starting point for wildfire-related information. Landing pages are created for each incident (e.g. Ferguson Fire), and they’re updated regularly with new developments. Land managers may post fire-related information on their websites, too, but they use InciWeb as the definitive resource.
Most of the information on InciWeb is retrieved from the regional Wildfire Agencies, e.g. Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center. In addition to incident information, these agencies are also responsible for issuing fire restrictions, fire potential outlooks, and other materials.
Wildland Fire Air Quality Response Program
WFAQRP is also an interagency platform, and focuses specifically on smoke. Forecast outlooks are issued in areas where wildfire smoke may be of concern.
If a smoke outlook from WFAQRP for your area of interest is not available, you may be able to find information from other organizations. For example, the Colorado Department of Health & Environment has issued a smoke advisory for the Front Range today and tomorrow.
In this app, you can browse over 600 global satellite imagery layers, which are usually updated within three hours of observation. Given current technology, this is as close to knowing what Earth looks like at the moment. For our puposes, it’s useful for determining smoke coverage and trends.
This technology is laughably 1990’s, but it remains remarkably useful for on-the-ground observation. Rangers and online trip reports can be helpful, too, but webcams contain more real-time information. I don’t know of a consolidated list of webcams, so consult Google.
NWS and CalTopo
In a recent backcountry weather forecasting tutorial, I wrote about my favorite tools from the National Weather Service, so I won’t repeat that information here.
But I wish to highlight one tool that received only cursory mention. CalTopo can retrieve NWS point forecasts (for temperatures, precip, and wind) as well as fire data, to create an insightful map for short-term behavior of wildfires and smoke.
This is my favorite map for assessing smoke location/intensity. You need to turn the layers on to see the forecast:
In the Carson Valley of Western Nevada, we have had a great deal of smoke from the Ferguson Fire and also the Donnell fire, which is West of Sonora Pass, during the past few weeks. I have found airnow.gov a great resource on air quality, and also local newspapers, located by google search, which often carry news of community briefings and links to many of the other resources you cited.
Having just spent a week in the Sierra near the Donnell fire, I found these two additional resources helpful:
* https://tools.airfire.org — the PM2.5 for air quality and BlueSky tools for smoke prediction are excellent
* https://www.fire.ca.gov/current_incidents — a list of CA fires (some of which link go inciweb) plus the google fire map which can be helpful when driving through fire-risk areas.
I have to second the new USFS AirFire BlueSky Smoke Forecast animated maps. They’ve been my go to in CA this summer. They have different data sets for the whole country or specific areas, but for example the Sierra map that I’ve been using:
The animation is kind of mesmerizing even if you don’t care about the smoke. They say it is still R&D but so far I’ve found it to be fairly accurate. It’s really helpful when the smoke dispersion is very directional, for instance lately the Donnell smoke has been drifting entirely north and I was able to get a smoke free trip into the Sawtooth ridge / Matterhorn peak area, which is close but to the south. Contrast that to a month ago when the same area (really all of Yosemite I think) was inundated with smoke every afternoon from the Ferguson Fire, even though that fire was much further away.
Awesome post, and very timely.
I did a lot of research into this last week because I had to reschedule the trip I had planned myself.
I spent quite a bit of time on the phone with a very helpful forest service employee who pointed me to the website they use to track hourly data of p.m. 2.5, the pollution particle.
Fascinating stuff, and it convinced me to wear a pollution mask while backpacking in the SoCal today.
I can definitely tell the air quality is terrible because of how my eyes feel, so I’m glad I had the mask, which I assume also helped with some aerobic resistance training.
Here’s another one I reference.
Looking at planning another high route. However, it seems that wildfires are becoming a regular occurrence every year. I went to RMNP last summer and saw light smoke on the last few days of the Piffner Traverse. I was glad I had not chosen the high sierras or YNP. Other than planning for early summer trips what high routes do you feel are safer or less prone to smoke ruining a trip in August?