Friday, August 21, 2015

Fire Season and Hunting - Prepare Yourselves Before You Go

I mentioned in my last post that fire season is on top of us. It's going to get worse before it gets better. One of the things that has been bothering me this entire year is what to do in the event of a fire and you are out hunting. I enlisted the help of my friend and firefighter, JD Heller, to share some tips and guidance on what to look for and what to do. Thanks to JD for a great post that we should all review carefully. ~AQ

Opening day of deer season is finally here! You have spent countless hours practicing, scouting, and prepping your gear. You are in your favorite honey hole, glassing until midday when you start to notice the passing shadows of clouds on the ground, but you know there isn't a cloud in the sky. Looking around you notice everything has a brown haze. Then you smell it. Something is burning! If you were hunting from the road it would be no big deal, as you could hop in your truck and get out as fast as you can, but you’re not! You have hiked three miles in to your favorite spot and the smoke is getting closer. How do you get out? Here are some basic factors that affect how a wildfire burns and how we can help ourselves stay safe if we are ever get caught in a fire situation.

Be cautious where you use a portable stove and be sure it's legal in your area.

There are three major factors that influence the starting and spread of a wildfire; Fuel, Weather, and Topography. 

Fuel Types: 
  • Light fuels - Grass, small shrubs, leaves and pine needles. These fuels will ignite rapidly and burn quickly but burn out quickly and are easy to put out.
  • Medium fuels - Sagebrush, smaller manzanita and yucca. These fuels take longer to ignite but burn intensely.
  • Heavy fuels - Trees, limbs and logs that might be on the ground. These are very difficult to extinguish once they get going.

What is the importance of the three types of fuel? The lighter the fuel the quicker it will ignite, burn, and go out. Conversely the larger the fuel the longer it will burn and the more difficult it is to put out.

Weather: Weather is a broad subject, so I will just cover wind.  Just like in hunting, the wind can either be your friend or your enemy. If you have been in Southern California for at least one fall you have experienced our Santa Ana winds. When you have low humidity, dry conditions and a Santa Ana episode you can have a fire storm. Look what happened in 2007 when more than 970,000 acres were burned in a two-week period. Winds can push the flames incredibly fast even when you don't have a slope. It can create a sheeting effect.

Topography: Topography encompasses aspect, slope and shape of the mountain. I think topography affects the hunter the most when dealing with our safety in a fire situation. Remember you will not be able to out run fire burning up hill!

Aspect: This is the direction the slope faces. Aspect determines the amount of preheating of the fuels and when they will heat up. Generally your south and southwest facing slopes are more directly exposed to sunlight. They have higher temps and lighter fuels. North facing slopes will get more shade, heavier fuels, and cooler temps.

Slope: Fire will burn more rapidly uphill than downhill. The reason is the steeper the slope the more preheating of the fuels above the fire. Another concern about steeper slopes is the possibility of burning material rolling down the hill and starting fires below you. Also watch out for rocks and boulders that may get dislodged.

Shape (Chimneys/draws and saddles, in turns and out turns): Fire, like water will take the path of least resistance. This is why it is so dangerous to get caught in a chimney, saddle or if you are driving on a road an “in turn”. Let me explain. Just like in your fireplace at home smoke and heat want to travel up. When you have a narrow draw that is on fire it is preheating the sides and ahead of the fire. This will cause rapid upward fire spread. Fire is also drawn into saddle areas. The reason why “in turns” in a road are so dangerous is because that is where the road turns into a chimney. The fire will be drawn to that area. It is safer in general to be on an “out turn” or the ridge portion of the slope. 

L C E S – (Lookouts, Communication, Escape routes, Safety Zones):
In the fire service we use LCES to remind us of these 4 things when we fight a wildland fire.
  • Lookouts: In a hunting situation this just means to stay aware of what is going on around you, such as changing weather and wind.
  • Communications: Make sure you have some way to communicate, like a cell phone, emergency locating device or even a signaling mirror. Make sure people know where you are and if things go bad you have a way to call for help.
  • Escape Routes: If you find yourself with a fire coming your way you should have multiple ways to get to safety, hopefully in different directions. This would be a wise thing to look for when you go scouting.
  • Safety Zones: A safety zone is an area that you can survive in case you cannot get out of the fires way. Examples of a safety zone are large rock slide areas, previously burned areas where the fuels are sparse or gone, lakes, streams and possibly roads.
Staying safe in the backcountry takes a little planning and avoiding a forest fire shouldn't be a big concern. It is a rare occurrence which will probably never happen, but we are in Southern California and hunting season is fire season! Keep your eyes open when you are scouting. Make note of ways to get to a safe area when you are out scouting. Make sure you are well hydrated and have an ample supply of water with you. Always protect your airway at all times. Be careful when using an open flame as you don’t want be the one who starts the fire!

Some of this info is taken from the Student Handbook for Introduction to Wildland Fire Behavior S-190. May, 1994. 

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