With this year’s extreme fire danger–it is not only important that you adhere to all sound fire prevention measures–but that you are also fire aware. We usually don’t think much about being caught in a fire–but the danger is very real. Washington Trails Magazine editor Eli Boschetto just recently had a harrowing experience being caught in a fire. I had it happen to me 6 summers ago while researching my Backpacking Washington book. Below is my original post from August 2009 on what it is like being caught in a wildfire. I hope none of you ever has to go through something like this–play it safe out there this bone-dry hot-as-an oven summer.
I Got Caught in a Burning Ring of Fire
In my many years and thousands of miles of hiking I have had many an unsettling experience among all of my glorious times. I’ve spooked and been spooked by grizzlies, bull elk, bull moose, and rattlesnakes protecting their dens. I’ve been dive bombed by owls, skimmed by bats, covered in ticks, stung by wasps, picked up a parasite or two and been zapped by numerous plants. I’ve been charged by dogs. Rained on. Snowed on. Caught in storms, dodged lightening bolts, loose rocks and even falling trees. I’ve been stuck fording raging creeks, crossing dangerous steep snowfields and even have been lost a couple of times (just a couple mind you!). And now after hiking to Spectacle Lake–I fell into a burning ring of fire (play it Johnny!).
On Thursday August 27th 2009, I headed up to Spectacle Lake via the Pete Lake Trail. I was aware of a forest fire in the area and from the get-go-smoke and the smell of burning wood filled the air. The trail wasn’t closed and supposedly the Lemah Creek Fire which had been burning since late July was just smoldering. Firefighters were in the region and the the way was supposedly safe to proceed to Spectacle. Upon hitting the Lemah Meadows Trail I ran into a couple of hikers and as we talked wood crackled right behind us-yes, right behind us-the fire was that close-but supposedly it was just smoldering and the way was safe and there were firefighters on the ground.
I made it to the lake-hung around for a couple of hours and then made my way back on the 10 miles remaining between me and my truck. As I descended from the lake, I watched the fire in the distance. It wasn’t smoldering-it was flaring up-and I suddenly had a very unnerving feel. As I approached the burn zone and the trail which was supposed to skirt it and provide me with safe passage I knew I was approaching trouble. The smoke was thick and I could now feel the heat. I could hear wood crackling and feel breezes-hot breezes as the fire was creating its own thermals and winds. Right at the junction trees were burning. Holy shit! The fire was beginning to encroach on my exit route. I figured I had about a quarter mile of fire zone to get through. Call me crazy-brazen-or stupid- I looked at the trees burning and the patches of fire dancing along the ground and assessed that I could get through safely. So I prayed to God and ran like helland made it through the burn zone physically exasperated and mentally overwhelmed. What was I thinking running through a forest fire? It was a fast run and a quick passage but it felt drawn out and almost surrealistic-like being in one of those Terminator movies or something similar where the hero runs through burning carnage-it was crazy-I survived it and warily kept marching down the trail. I encountered a couple of hikers coming up the trail where I warned them of my ordeal and what faced them-I must have looked like I saw a ghost.
I look back at the incident now and still break out into a sweat. Wow-that was one heck of an experience! The trail is closed now and the fire continues to flare and grow. Nature is a powerful force. The wilderness is a beautiful place-but Nature can sometimes make heaven on earth a living hell for those who usually live outside of her realm.