Wildfire and Wilderness Recreation

Smoke in the distance

While recreating in wilderness areas, there’s a good chance you’ll encounter burned areas or even a nearby wildfire. Fire is one of the most fundamental natural processes, and an integral part of wilderness areas. Fire reminds us that wilderness areas are not static, fixed places. They are dynamic, vibrant landscapes; places that burn and regenerate again; places that we can’t control and predict; places that make us feel small but also part of a natural community much bigger than ourselves.

Although fires are a natural and important part of virtually all ecosystems, they present unique challenges and opportunities as you spend time in the backcountry. What do you need to know to recreate in fire-prone landscapes? 

Burned landscape

Recently burned forest in the Cecil D. Andrus-White Clouds Wilderness of Idaho.

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Fire as a Natural Process

Fires have occurred for as long as there have been plants that burn. As a result, many species have evolved adaptive traits to respond to flammable landscapes: the thick bark of ponderosa pine (which insulates from fire); the seed of aspen (which only germinates on bare soil such as is created after a fire); the cones of some lodgepole pines (which only open with heat); or “burn” morel mushrooms (that fruit prolifically after a fire).

Closeup of burned tree bark

Ponderosa pine’s thick bark allows trees to survive low-intensity fire.

Just as many plants are dependent on fire, animals also rely on burned areas. The nutritious new growth after a fire is enjoyed by deer and elk, and the post-fire open landscapes can make it easier to see predators. Fire-killed trees often contain many insects that attract birds such as woodpeckers.

Benefits of Fire to Recreation Experiences

Fire creates beautiful and diverse landscapes. Disturbances such as fire are agents of both destruction and rejuvenation—a balancing force that creates opportunities for new growth and adaptation. In wilderness areas where fire is naturally influencing the ecosystem, you’ll notice a patchwork: areas that burned recently, others that haven’t burned in hundreds of years. This patchwork means that there is also a diversity of plants and animals that grow and flourish during different stages of development following a fire. Whether you’re hunting, hiking, backpacking, or floating, you’ll likely see more wildlife in wilderness areas where fire has been allowed to return.

River flowing around a rock

Fireweed along a burned creekside in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho.

Recreation Safety

Although fire is critical to natural systems in wilderness and has many benefits, it can create hazards for visitors. To ensure a safe and rewarding experience in the wilderness, it’s helpful to keep these things in mind.

Safety in Burned Areas

For years after a fire, trees that have been killed by fire will fall, so you should always exercise caution when hiking through a burned area. Never camp in an area with standing dead trees—they could fall while you’re sleeping! During high winds, fire-killed trees are much more likely to fall, so consider adjusting your route to avoid spending time in recently burned areas if windy weather conditions are in the forecast.

Backpacker in a burned area

Use caution when hiking through burned forested areas, especially when it’s windy.

Fire-killed trees often fall across trails. Additionally, since many of the plants that helped to hold in soil may also have been killed in the fire, erosion can be common after fires. These two factors mean that trail conditions may be compromised for a year or two after a fire, until trail crews are able to clear blowdown and repair any eroded sections. Always respect trail closures—they are made to ensure your safety! Even when a trail hasn't been closed (or if you're bushwhacking), higher amounts of downed woody debris can be a tripping hazard and can slow travel time considerably. Shrubs and brush may conceal sharp, fire-hardened stumps and other impalement hazards. 

Safety During Fire Season 

In most wilderness areas, fires can occur anytime from May through the beginning of fall. Of course, this is also when most wilderness areas receive their highest numbers of visitors. Fear of fire shouldn't keep you from enjoying the backcountry, but it's important to consider safety while traveling in wilderness during fire season. When you’re planning your trip, consult with local authorities on the current fire danger as well as the locations of any actively burning fires. InciWeb  provides maps and updated information on actively burning fires, and the National Weather Service  can be a good starting place for fire weather forecasts.

Tent in a smoky area

Backpacking during a smoky fire season in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho.

If a fire is burning within a wilderness area, land managers will likely close trails or trailheads close to the fire. Always heed these closures—there’s certainly a beautiful trail somewhere else to explore! Even if trails aren't officially closed, you may want to consider canceling or moving your trip if it would take you within close proximity of an actively burning fire, or close to where a fire may eventually spread. Call your local Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, National Park Service, or Fish and Wildlife Service office to make sure that your plans won’t endanger your safety or get in the way of firefighters managing the fire.

Even with the best planning, it’s not always possible to predict when a fire might ignite or quickly spread. During fire season, be vigilant by watching for plumes of smoke near you. Pay particular attention after storms with lightning—lightning ignitions can smolder and then quickly spread in a day or two when conditions have dried out and wind picks up. Before you leave, always tell someone about your trip itinerary, when you plan to return, and establish a plan for who they should contact if you miss your scheduled time. Make sure you have good maps and have identified alternate trails and routes that you could use to quickly make it to safety if a fire unexpectedly cuts off your planned route.

Backpacker on a smoky mountain top

Backpacking in the Sangre de Cristo Wilderness of Colorado during fire season. Before you head into the backcountry, identify alternate routes you could take if you need to flee a fire.

Health Hazards During Fire Season

Sometimes a fire is too far away to be dangerous, but it can still affect your health. Smoke from wildfires can travel hundreds of miles. Consult air quality ratings for the area you plan to visit and consider if forecasted levels will be hazardous to the health of people in your group—older individuals, those with heart disease or diabetes, those with asthma or other lung conditions, and pregnant women may be at higher risk. Although low levels of smoke may not present serious issues for healthy individuals, higher levels of smoke can cause serious respiratory and heart issues for everyone. If you experience a runny nose, cough, wheezing, or trouble breathing because of smoke while recreating, immediately take steps to limit exposure and get to an area with less smoke.

When smoke is in the air, visibility is often reduced as well. This may make it harder to navigate in certain circumstances when you’re relying on landmarks, not to mention making that summit view not quite as good! When air quality and visibility is bad, consider if the health and aesthetic drawbacks are worth it—or if you should visit a different wilderness area instead or visit at a different time.

Smoke

Wildfire smoke and reduced visibility in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho.

Preventing Accidental Human-Caused Wildfires

Although lightning is the primary cause of wildfires in wilderness, accidental ignitions by careless or uninformed visitors are a significant secondary source. Accidental visitor-caused wildfires often occur when conditions are driest, meaning that these fires can burn hot and fast. They can strain firefighters who may already be busy managing naturally-ignited fires, and they can put the lives of more firefighters at risk. Like naturally-ignited wildfires, they can also generate smoke plumes that travel across numerous states. You can prevent human-caused wildfires on your next wilderness trip by first knowing when to have, or not have, a campfire. Wilderness agencies put campfire restrictions in place when fire danger is high, so always follow these restrictions. Seriously consider foregoing a campfire when conditions are windy and dry and in areas without sufficient wood (such as alpine or desert environments), regardless of agency restrictions. There are great alternatives to campfires that provide light, entertainment, and warmth.

Smoke

Morning light over a recently burned ridge in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness in Idaho.

When conditions allow and are appropriate for a campfire, always follow these best practices to minimize your campfire impacts.

  • Use existing fire rings, if they are available
  • Use a fire pan or fire blanket to prevent scorching the ground underneath your fire
  • Keep fires small
  • Only burn dead, downed wood smaller than your wrist that can be broken by hand
  • Extinguishing your campfire completely using plenty of water—you should be able to stir the ashes with your bare hands!

Fire Management in Wilderness

Dead trees standing after a fire

High-severity fire in the Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness of Idaho. The Selway-Bitterroot Wilderness was the first Forest Service wilderness area where some fires were allowed to burn. Today, it has one of most intact natural fire systems in the contiguous U.S.

Today, most fires in wilderness areas are started by lightning (or lava, in the case of Hawai'i Volcanoes or Haleakalā Wilderness areas in Hawai'i). However, natural ignitions aren't the only way that fires can be started. For millennia, Indigenous peoples have used fire as a tool for land management to promote desirable plant species, provide habitat for game animals that could then be hunted more easily, and other purposes. In the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness of northern Minnesota, for example, fire use by the Anishinaabe helped to create open red pine forests—locations that can still be seen today and are sought out by recreationalists for their beauty.

As Indigenous peoples were forcibly removed from their lands, however, much of this human management of fire was lost, replaced with a Western view that saw fire as the enemy, and sought to suppress all fires. Ironically, this goal was not only largely futile, it has also led to many unintended consequences, including a buildup of fuels that make fires harder to manage today. After the Wilderness Act was enacted in 1964, land managers began to re-recognize the ecological importance of fire. One of the fundamental goals of the Wilderness Act is to preserve areas in which “forces of nature” still exert their influence. And fire is undoubtedly one of the most fundamental such forces.

Fire crew clears brush

Wildfire crew clear brush, dig lines, and use other hand tools to manage fire in wilderness.

Fires that burn naturally in wilderness can reduce the amount of fuel available for the next fire, often lowering the probability that a future fire will blowup into an extreme, high-severity event. These fuel breaks created by a past fire are also the best line of defense in preventing a future fire from escaping wilderness boundaries. As we respond to climate change, fire can also be a critical tool for land management of wilderness. By using fire on our terms—for example, by igniting prescribed fires when weather conditions are preferable—managers can create fuel breaks and provide opportunities for plant species that are dependent on fire to regenerate and migrate.

Wilderness Fire Science

In addition to the ecological benefits of fire in wilderness, there are also many scientific benefits to letting fires burn. Because wilderness areas are some of the only places where fires are allowed to burn, they provide some of the finest natural laboratories to better understand how fire impacts plants, animals, and patterns of future fire. Today, fire research in wilderness areas helps managers better understand how fire limits the spread and intensity of subsequent fire, how to predict when fires can be safely allowed to burn, and how active fire shapes plant and animal composition in forests. What we learn about fire in wilderness areas can allow for safer and more ecological management of fire across all public lands.

Researcher doing fire science

Scientists installing a plot to study wildfire in Utah. Research in wilderness and other remote public lands offers some of the best places to understand how fire interacts with and impacts forests, and how this relationship will continue to develop with climate change.

Author and photographer: Mark Kreider is an ecologist, photographer, and filmmaker from Missoula, Montana where he studies how forests respond to fire and climate change. Photographs from Steve Lozano and the National Wildfire Coordinating Group are also included.