Out West, there’s a common refrain on the rare occasion that it rains: “Well, we need the moisture.” In particularly dry years—increasingly common as climate change takes hold—this is often followed by concern: “It’s going to be a bad fire season.”
I grew up on the arid Colorado Front Range, where fire was a yearly concern. Wildfire season often meant being ready to change plans at the last minute and almost always meant campfires were out of the question. I was used to taking fire danger into account when planning trips, but it wasn’t until 2021 that I experienced a forest fire up close. That summer, my family rafted down the Main Salmon with OARS to celebrate my dad’s 60th birthday—and ended up paddling right through the Dixie-Jumbo Fire.
Despite being unnerving, that experience was an incredible way to interact with the landscape of the West; after all, fire is a natural part of the ecosystem. The Dixie-Jumbo blaze, which was caused by lightning strikes, ended up burning nearly 47,000 acres of the Nez Perce-Clearwater National Forests, though thankfully human lives and structures were spared.
At the end of the trip, I was glad I’d had the experience of rafting through an active forest fire, but I wasn’t eager to do it again. And while we certainly can’t control what happens during wildfire season, we can adjust our vacation planning around it.
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How to Plan a Trip During Wildfire Season in the West
Think about timing
Wildfire season doesn’t have an “official” start or end date, but historically, the greatest chance of wildfires in the West occurs between May and October—when mountains and foothills are snow-free, which, of course, is also when trails are dry for hiking and rivers are ready to raft. While wildfires can happen anytime in this window (and they can happen before and after), the later, hotter months tend to be drier. None of this means you can’t plan a trip during the summer, but it does mean you need to consider the possibility of your vacation being impacted by nearby fires and smoky conditions.
Monitor historic conditions
Generally speaking, the less snow a region receives in the winter, the drier—and thus more fire-prone—it’s going to be the following fire season. If you like to geek out on data, you can check out the SNOTEL (snow telemetry, or station for monitoring snow) sites for the region you’re headed to; they’re categorized on the US Forest Service website by state. But you don’t have to be a scientist to do some sleuthing: even Googling winter weather news headlines for the area you’d like to plan a trip will give you a sense of whether it’s been a dry, normal, or particularly snowy season. That gives you some baseline expectations for the season. As the trip gets closer, you can monitor active fires by checking InciWeb, which publishes daily updates from firefighting agencies as they manage fires.
Invest in trip insurance—and know your cancellation options
When considering a travel protection plan, it’s worth knowing that most policies aren’t going to cover a discretionary choice to opt out of traveling due to poor air quality. It’s rare for managing agencies to close public lands due to fire, only doing so if there is a clear threat to life in allowing recreation to continue. A cancel-for-any-reason policy is likely the only type of travel protection plan that would provide for partial refunds should you cancel on account of the unhealthy air quality.
It’s also important to understand that seasonal outfitters largely consider wildfires and poor air quality to be a fact of life, and similar to the managing agencies controlling access to the areas where they operate, won’t cancel a trip unless there’s a clear threat to their travelers and guides. If trips are canceled by the outfitter due to extreme conditions, a quality outfit will offer refunds or the opportunity to reschedule.
Have an exit strategy
As we rafted through the Dixie-Jumbo Fire on the Main Salmon, between one side of the river being off-limits and the smoky air, I felt vaguely claustrophobic—and it didn’t help that feeling that, literally, the only way out was through. Fortunately, in that case, OARS had an emergency action plan and the guides communicated it with us clearly at every step; that put me at ease. Any good outfitter will do the same.
If you’re planning a trip on your own, you’ll want to review topographic maps and research local emergency response resources. For example, will you be able to make contact with the outside world if a fire behaves unpredictably and puts you in danger? Which groups or agencies can you contact for help or information in that case? Putting together your own personal emergency action plan and understanding your possible bailout options will leave you more prepared and alleviate some stress.
Research a Plan B
If there’s one thing I’ve learned in my time spent in the backcountry, it’s that the wilderness has a way of throwing unanticipated challenges our way, no matter how well we’ve planned. If you’ve done everything above, you’re in good shape. But sometimes, lightning strikes at the last minute or winds suddenly shift and conditions become unsafe. In that case, having a backup plan (a consolation prize, as I sometimes think of it) can help you make a safe, rational decision.
That can change your mental calculus from, “Oh no, my trip is canceled!” to, “Well, we’ll still get to raft another beautiful section of river,” which makes you less likely to overlook crucial details that might impact your safety.
There are so many things I love about living out West. I wouldn’t put wildfire season at the top of that list, but in reality, that unpredictability and the possibility of interacting with natural phenomena—including fire—is part of what makes this wild landscape so special. I try to take all these things into account when I’m planning a trip during wildfire season, but once my boat is on the river, my stress generally melts away. At that point, all that’s left to do is make the best decisions I can with the info I have, and keep paddling downriver.
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Photos: Nancy Linenschmidt, Jenny Love, Dylan Silver