Each day brings more troubling news about the devastating wildfires raging in the western U.S. The Dixie Fire, in northern California, has burned more than 500,000 acres, including most of the town of Greenville. As I write this, on Aug. 12, the fire is less than one-third contained.
In Montana the Richard Spring fire is threatening numerous communities, including some in the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation. It is further reports that 14 major fires are burning, mostly in the West.
Extremely dry conditions allow for fires to start easily and quickly burn out of control. It appears that a power line issue may be partly to blame for the start of the Dixie fire.
While lightning causes many fires – and has for millennia as a natural ecological asset – it is also true that fires are becoming more common due to carelessness or recklessness on the part of those who travel outdoors.
Four-wheelers must take precautions to ensure they don’t start a fire, out West or anywhere. These suggestions will keep you from starting the next devastating blaze.
How to prevent a wildfire
Driving and maintaining the vehicle: Avoid driving over dry grass and brush. The hot exhaust pipe, muffler or catalytic converter could start a fire.
Be especially cautious if your vehicle has skid plates but no lift kit. Vegetation can get stuffed between the skid plates and exhaust, muffler or other hot part. Be mindful of any smoke coming from under the vehicle.
Stop frequently and check the undercarriage for grass or brush caught in the frame when driving on seldom used trails with tall grasses.
Poor maintenance is also a problem. Worn, thin brakes lead to metal-on metal contact, which can cause sparking. Sparking can also come from frayed wiring, so inspect wiring harnesses regularly.
A small car fire isn’t going to stay small very long. Grass underneath and nearby will catch on fire as well.
This is a good time for a refresher on fire extinguishers. Look for one rated ABC. That means it’s capable of putting out most types of fires. The fire extinguisher should be at least a 2 ½ pound size, though bigger is better.
I like to have two in every vehicle. Place or mount one near the driver’s seat and the other in back. They should be visible and easily accessible. You won’t have time to dig through equipment during an emergency.
With a fire extinguisher handy, you can prevent a small vehicle fire from becoming a major calamity. Remember that if you use a fire extinguisher for even a small fire, take the extinguisher in for servicing. A partially discharged fire extinguisher will fail to deliver properly the next time.
For more on fire extinguishers, see “Pack A Fire Extinguisher So You Don’t Get Burned”
Element Fire ExtinguisherAt the time I wrote that article, the Element fire extinguisher hadn’t been invented. About the size of a flare, the Element discharges a blanket of nontoxic material that douses the fire. The manufacturer claims each Element offers five times the fire extinguishing capability of a traditional 5-pound chemical extinguisher.
Though pricey and used only once, the Element is something to consider.
Camping: Fire restrictions in much of the western U.S prohibit burning wood or charcoal. Any heating or cooking must be done with a propane device.
But even in areas where burning is allowed, take appropriate measures. Make sure there is at least 3 feet of cleared space around the fire. Keep water and a shovel nearby. Use water to douse all fires and embers; don’t leave the firepit until the ashes are at most warm to the touch. Don’t burn paper or carboard. They produce hot embers floating up from the fire. Those can ignite nearby grass and brush.
Best not to have a “breakfast” campfire unless someone plans to hang around for several hours. Never leave a campfire until it is thoroughly extinguished. Make it a rule: The last guy to throw a stick on the fire has to hang around to ensure the fire is totally out.
California requires a campfire permit even for propane stoves. Research the area you intend to visit before leaving home.
Never shoot off fireworks over grasses or brush. It’s often illegal to shoot off fireworks, anyway. Best to leave those to more suitable environments.
Smoking: Experts recommend that if you smoke outside, choose a clear spot at least 3 feet from flammable materials. For indoors, smoke in designated areas or rooms. Of course, you may smoke in your vehicle but don’t throw the butt out the window. Countless grass fires have started that way along roadways.
Field repairs, outdoors work: Most repair work is of little hazard, but a few instances should be noted.
Welding, brazing, and propane soldering can be risky. Ditto for cutting with a torch. It’s important to watch that open flame. Stick welding, of course, generates a tremendous amount of sparking. Weld only while in a clear space when permitted.
Never set the newly welded object on grass-covered ground. It may be hot enough to cause smoldering.
Grinding also generates sparks. Try to do your grinding in the bed of a truck or over a cleared portion of land.
Chainsaws and other small engines that don’t have spark arrestors should be used carefully or not at all in dry environments.
What to do if caught in a wildfire
First, get out as quickly as you can. Don’t stand around discussing options. And definitely don’t delay trying to save valuables. Leave the tent and equipment behind – they can be replaced. Every moment counts during a fire emergency.
There is no best advice for a last-ditch action to save yourself if you don’t leave in time. All the options suck!
Roll up your windows and turn your A/C to recirculate (to avoid drawing in the smoky outside air); close and block all air vents. Drive slowly, and turn on headlights and hazard lights.
Ideally, try to keep something between you and the radiant heat, such as rocks, concrete wall, or another noncombustible material.
How might you be notified of a wildfire when you’re off road? An obvious sign is smoke in the distance. Try to judge its direction, but be ready to move on a moment’s notice.
You can try your smartphone: any notices or messages? If you have ham radio equipment, check into area repeater(s), especially one dedicated to emergency traffic. If you encounter other drivers, ask them. Of course, any park staff member you encounter should have the latest news.
Four-wheelers should always be extra-cautious when driving and camping in areas with dry vegetation. Know your evacuation options in advance. The smallest flame could have big consequences. And if you find yourself in danger, leave the area immediately.