In the Unlikely Event

Editor’s note: In this monthly outdoors feature, we’ll investigate the potential hazards of outdoor adventures — what they are, how to prepare for them and how to survive worst-case scenarios in the backcountry and in life! Have a specific situation you’d like to know more about or troubleshoot? Let us know at outdoors@seattletimes.com and we’ll investigate.

When it comes to wildfire, humans are the weak link.

We’re only a few weeks into the 2021 fire season here in Washington and we’re already on record pace with more than 267 wildfires big and small reported on public lands. A whopping 91 came in one week alone in mid-April when temperatures reached 70 for the first time this year.

Of these, humans are responsible for most – about 90%, historically. Combine worsening drought, tinder-dry conditions and the increasing presence of humans in the wild, and all signs point to a long, smoky summer due to a lot of negative factors coming together at once.

“We’ve already had a lot of fires. It’s fairly dry,” said Paige DeChambeau, recreation communication manager at the Washington state Department of Natural Resources. “We also expect to see recreation [increase]. It was very high last year. I think we’ve heard from between 30% more than usual to like 100% more than usual. And things haven’t quite opened completely yet, so a lot of people are still heading out to recreate as their thing that they can do during COVID.”

Many wildfires begin with burn piles, carelessness or mischief. But a very high number begin when those who wish to enjoy the outdoors accidentally endanger it. DNR records show 13 of this year’s fires are recreation-related and that number is likely to go up as temperatures warm and snowpack recedes. DeChambeau said historically about a third of human-caused fires are related to recreational activities. 

Recreation is “awesome” and “a COVID-friendly activity,” DeChambeau said, “however the more people you get outside and the drier the conditions get, the more likely we’re going to have some wildfires.

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“We definitely want people to know that when you’re out there, just one tiny neglected spark can create a devastating wildfire,” DeChambeau added. “So make sure your campfire is completely out when you’re out camping and hiking, and know all the different things that can cause fires.”

And there are so many potential causes of fires: cigarettes, fireworks, chains that drag on the road below your vehicle, poorly maintained off-road vehicles.

If 2020 was any indicator, Washingtonians will take an uneven approach to fire safety in the coming months. COVID-19 restrictions also spurred more outdoor activity last summer, leading some to declare a state of “wreckreation” on public lands.

The hope is outdoor etiquette will improve this summer, and state and federal agencies offer many easy-to-access tools to provide revelers with education, current regulations and even active fire maps. Also, after a season off due to COVID-19, the volunteer program will return, meaning more oversight of activities.

“2020 was an unprecedented year for recreation,” said Leah Dobey, DNR’s statewide recreation manager. “On DNR-managed lands, we experienced a significant increase in visitors. We also noticed more littering, dumping and vandalism on our lands. Enough that some places had to close as we repaired gates and restrooms. Looking forward into 2021, we hope to see more shared stewardship from our visitors and the return of our amazing volunteers.”

DNR also offers a number of tools for those who wish to get out and about, including web pages (dnr.wa.gov/go) that outline recreation opportunities and fire danger and restrictions (https://fortress.wa.gov/dnr/protection/firedanger/). There are a number of agencies that deal with wildland fires in Washington and it’s worth spending time online before you head out on an adventure (or just managing your own little piece of Washington). 

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The agency also is partnering with a number of nonprofits and land management agencies in the Recreate Responsibly Coalition, a program that offers a tool kit to educate users on how to create a safe and more inclusive outdoor experience.

A few reminders:

  • Wildfires are not a tourist opportunity. Evacuate the area immediately.
  • If you’re allowed to build a campfire, manage it closely and carefully and make sure the ashes are cold to the touch before you pack out. 
  • Cigarettes, and other personal incendiary devices, should be managed carefully and never tossed out of a vehicle window or into the brush. 
  • For those who live near wildlands, follow the many guidelines to reduce the risk of wildfire. Northwest (wa.gov)
  • Report wildfires by calling 911 or 800-562-6010.
  • Do not park hot vehicles in grass or brush. And make sure your vehicles and trailers are maintained and aren’t dragging chains.

“You might have a chain or a spark arrestor that can cause a spark,” DeChambeau said. “And then also knowing if there is a burn ban in the place that you’re going, especially for camping and hiking, to make sure if you can use your stove and what kind of stove you can use, and if you can have a campfire at all.”

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