Tag Archives: Wildfire

Take a Note from a Wildfire

Photo taken on 9/20/16

The Soberanes Fire started burning the morning of July 22. In early August, fire officials determined that the fire began as an illegal campfire, that was started around 8:45 a.m. and left unattended near a trail in Garrapata State Park, about 20 miles north of Big Sur. The fire, 100% contained on October 12th, burned for 83 days and spread over 132,000 acres of California’s central coast, particularly in the Ventana Wilderness of Los Padres National Forest. The fire cost more than $230 million in fire suppression response and damages to private and public property, in addition to the death of a bulldozer operator whose rig overturned while fighting the blaze in steep backcountry. [Image: inciweb.nwcg.gov/]

Historically speaking, even though it may be one of the most expensive, the Soberanes Fire is not the most destructive wildfire to decimate thousands of acres in North America. In terms of area burned and lives lost, it isn’t remotely close—the Miramichi in New Brunswick, the Big Burn that scorched Idaho and Montana, and even the Great Chicago Fire all dwarf the Soberanes Fire, despite the fact that the latter burned for two-and-a-half months, and consumed 11 outbuildings and 57 homes in remote areas.

The bulk of the credit for the fire’s relative containment is due to better technology, research and wildfire-fighting science than was available at the time those terrible fires raged—to say nothing of the heroic, well organized, and supremely-trained fire response crews who fly, drive, hike, and parachute into the affected areas to combat the fire from every possible angle. There is however a key factor that connects the fires: their preventable and shared likely geneses, human intervention.

All of the destruction of Soberanes Fire—and the resources expended by heroic efforts imparted by wildland firefighters who battled its disastrous march up steep, secluded mountainsides—started with a single campfire set and abandoned by a careless human. If anything instructive can come from the Soberanes Fire, it’s the importance and reinforcement of good campfire safety and etiquette.

Seriously… Only YOU Can Prevent Wildfires!

The first rule of thumb is of course to heed warnings: never start fires where they are banned by the town, county or state you’re camping in, or when the U.S. Forest Service gives you Smokey-the-Bear eyes. They’re very judgmental if you don’t pay attention.

Failure to adhere to the bans is not only dangerous for adventure seekers, but for wildlife, and the native flora. The Forest Service uses the Fire Danger Rating System to communicate this succinctly. When the fire danger is high or very high to extreme, fires burn quickly and intensely, and can be difficult and dangerous to control. A small spark or ember, hoisted on even a slight breeze, can set a hillside ablaze. Clearly someone wasn't paying attention when this si[Photo by Lance Cheung. Source: commons.wikimedia.org]

Failure to adhere to the bans is not only dangerous for adventure seekers, but for wildlife and the native flora. The USFS uses the Fire Danger Rating System to communicate wildfire danger succinctly. Particularly when the fire danger is “high” to “extreme,” fires burn quickly and intensely, and can be difficult and dangerous to control. A small spark or ember, hoisted on even the slightest breeze, can set a hillside ablaze. [Photo by Lance Cheung. Source: commons.wikimedia.org]

Where fire danger is low to moderate and there isn’t a ban in effect, responsible, attended campfires in designated campfire rings and pits can provide a charming, immersive and educational look into outdoor living and our ancestral past. And also s’mores. When fires are permitted, it is best to use developed, designated fire rings or fire pits.

If fire rings are not present, as may happen when backpacking in undeveloped areas or wilderness, and fires aren’t illegal, still use caution: fires should be as small as possible and only be started when completely necessary. Consider the surface where the fire will burn, and be sure to clear away duff, brush or other combustible material, including your shelter, from the immediate area. Before starting a fire outside of a developed fire ring take steps to minimize the fire’s impact.

Enjoy the Campfire, But Don’t Be Rude!

Whether or not a fire is created in the backcountry or in a fire pit in a designated campsite, materials that enter the fire should be entirely, naturally combustible, as with tinder, kindling, wood and charcoal. Non-combustibles or pollutants like cans, tin foil, plastic and Styrofoam shouldn’t be burned, let alone left in the pit. (Pro tip: Leave No Trace principles are helpful whether you’re tucked away in dense, wooded backcountry, or staying at a KOA. Leaving garbage for the next camper to pick up is always a disappointment and detracts from the enjoyment of nature they and we all seek when we head out for a night of sleeping under the stars.)

Fire: Wouldn’t Want to Live Without It

Fire is a necessary component of life, whether we are in the wilderness or not. It cooks our food, warms our homes, propels our cars and busses, and even provides entertainment along with its warmth, as when we enjoy fireworks or a festive Yule log. But wildfires iterate in stark terms the danger of mistaking fire as a tamed resource. In our homes and in the wilderness, fire will always have a power that requires vigilance and attention for safety. As long as we remember to be mindful of that, campfires and fireplaces will remain as integral and warming as they have been for a million years.

[Image: recreation.gov]

“Gee, we really are lucky,” this camper seems to think, “both to enjoy this campfire as recreation rather than necessity, and because there are so many ways to enjoy a good fire safely!” [Image: recreation.gov]

What Happens to Animals in Forest Fires?

forest fire blaze

Image: www.ecoforumjournal.org

Wildfires wreak havoc every year in forests and grasslands around the world. These seemingly devastating events, whether natural or intentional, may overwhelmingly negatively impact local neighborhoods, but plants and animals in forest fires have acclimated in areas of common fire occurrences.

“Wildlife have a long-standing relationship with fire,” according to ecosystem ecologist Mazeika Sullivan in an article from National Geographic. “Fire is a natural part of these landscapes.” Plants and animals in areas of naturally occurring wildfires (fires caused by hot temperatures and lightening), have adapted. Animals in forest fires know when it’s time to flee. Plants, which seem to be greatly disadvantaged in this situation, have developed certain reproductive and regenerative abilities during fires. There are even some plant species that spread their seeds only after a wildfire.

animals in forest fires

Image: www.http://media3.washingtonpost.com/

NatGeo says sometimes wildfires are important because they help restart life in certain areas, however, this does not mean wildfires should be started purposefully.

According to the National Park Service, ponderosa pines, giant sequoia and slash pine trees have adapted thick barks to ward off extreme heat during wildfires. Some plants like longleaf pine have evolved protective layers of nonflammable foliage to protect their buds.

Animals in forest fires run. Smaller, slower animals such as moles, snakes and lizards burrow deep into the ground to avoid heat. Predators use wildfires as a chance to feast on fleeing animals. Wildfires have been happening probably for millions of years, so these animals know how to react in order to survive. That’s not to say all animals make it, though. Smoke inhalation and the inability to flee means doom for some animals in forest fires.

“In those short-term situations,” Sullivan said in his NatGeo interview, “there’s always winners and losers.”

Although there are quite a few animal deaths with each wildfire, there has never been a case of an entire population wipeout due to a fire.

Below are U.S. wildfire statistics for acres burned  in 10 years ending in 2012.

Image: Michael Hansberry

Image: Michael Hansberry

Suggested Gear List: 

  • Brunton Eterna Compact Binocular
  • Ultimate Survival Technologies 15 Day Flashlight
  • Brunton Nomad V2 Digital Compass

Check out our Pocket Ranger® Gear Store for these items and more!

Fire Towers in State Parks

Fire towers or lookout towers have long been a destination for hikers heading up into the mountains. Some would say that these towers are icons of American outdoor history. In fact, Jack Kerouac wrote about his experience as a fire lookout in the North Cascades in Lonesome Traveler and several other novels.

Fire Towers in State Parks

Jack Kerouac’s Lookout Tower on Desolation Peak
[Image: www.pinterest.com/pin/238409373993750395/]

This summer, you can make one of the state park fire towers a destination on your outdoor excursion.

Fire Towers and Forest Fires

Originally fire towers were to used to spot forest fires, like the recent one in Wharton State Forest, New Jersey that recently made NYC smell like smoke.

Fire Towers in State Parks

Fire Tower on Apple Pie Hill, Wharton State Forest, New Jersey
[Image: www.media-cache-ec0.pinimg.com/736x/04/c9/84/04c984bae50418f9720e3c5bc8127633.jpg]

How did they spot forest fires long ago? The Osbourne Fire Finder was the most popular fire-spotting device back in the early 1900s. To see how it worked, check out this Osbourne Fire Finder video demonstration.

Other methods of fire notification included the use of a phone or even carrier pigeon. Newer methods for spotting wildfires include aircraft, satellite photos, and locals simply using their cell phones.

Fire Towers in State Parks

Miss Helen Dowe at Devil’s Head Fire Lookout. Osborne Fire Finder, 1919.
[Image: www.flickr.com/photos/foresthistory/3663060280/]

Fire Towers in State Parks

Satellite Photos of Wildfires, California, 2007 (Right) and Idaho 2013 (Left)
[Image: www.nasa.gov/images/content/193857main_wildfire_oct22_full.jpg]

Some proponents of keeping the fire towers in use claim there is still a benefit to having a live human being on site to keep watch for wildfires. Another argument for keeping them in use is that by the time you can see a fire from a satellite, it has already gotten too large.

Preserving the Fire Towers

For many reasons, fire towers are great hiking destinations, but their greatest appeal is that they are positioned at a high point with an unobstructed 360-degree view. They’re so popular that the bottom stairs are often removed so people don’t climb up to the cab. It’s no wonder, then, that there is a movement (in New York state) to preserve fire towers by designating them as historic (both the towers themselves and the land underneath them). One group has suggested moving the towers to nearby communities to set them up as historic sites, but another camp, voiced by Steve Engelhardt, director of the Adirondack Architectural Heritage group, wants them ot remain where they are: “The context of the towers is very important,” he said. “They belong on the tops of mountains.”

Hiking to Fire Towers in State Parks

Some see these tower attractions as a good opportunity to promote information about the parks, their history, and other related subjects. They are also just great summer hiking destinations in state parks and we want you to go see for yourself!

Apple Pie Hill
Location: Wharton State Forest, New Jersey
Recommended Route: Batona Trail from Carranza Memorial stone
Distance: 9 miles, out and back

Jackie Jones Fire Tower
Location: Harriman State Park, Rockland County, N.Y.
Distance: 4.5 miles, loop

Mount Cardigan Fire Tower
Location: Cardigan State Park, New Hampshire
Distance: 5.5 miles, loop

Snowy Mountain Fire Tower
Location: South Mountain, Pennsylvania
Distance: 4 miles

Soapstone Mountain Lookout
Location: Shenipsit State Park, Somers, Connecticut
Distance: 1 mile round-trip (longer routes available)

Or if you want to find a fire tower near you, check out this interactive map provided by the National Historic Lookout Register.

Also, fun fact: did you know that in addition to being rentable, some fire towers are sold as surplus state property? You can even buy them on ebay.

It’s interesting to note that the cost of dismantling the fire tower is higher than the cost of the fire tower itself.

Fire Towers in State Parks

Buy it Now for $28,000.00
[Image: www.ebay.com]

So once you own a fire tower, what are you going to do with it? We guess you could set up a zipline on one. Or use it as the world’s biggest deer stand. Or you know, it could come in handy for home defense during a zombie apocalypse.

New Jersey’s Pine Barrens

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Image: en.wikipedia.org

Wharton State Forest made headlines recently (you can read our own take here) when residents of New York and Philadelphia awoke to the unfamiliar sight and smell of wood smoke from a brush fire that consumed 1,600 acres. The state forest, which at 110,000 acres is New Jersey’s largest, makes up only one tenth of an undeveloped and heavily forested area of coastal plane known as the Pine Barrens. The Pine Barrens, as the name suggests, is a region defined by vast stretches of pitch pine and a sandy nutrient-poor soil which locals call sugar sand. The region is home to a number of rare plants and animals including several unique species of orchid. The Pine Barrens is also home to the legend of the New Jersey Devil.

Image: www.njpinebarrens.com

Image: www.njpinebarrens.com

Forest fires are actually quite common in the Pine Barrens. The lack of decomposing bacteria and earthworms in the soil allows fire-prone materials like leaves and pine needles to accumulate. The sandy soil also wicks up moisture at a rapid rate creating dry conditions on top and large aquifers deep below. In areas where brush fires are the most frequent, dwarf forests of pine less than 4 feet high can be found.

Image: www.hike-li.org

Image: www.hike-li.org

In addition to Wharton, the Pinelands Reserve contains Brendan T. Byrne State Forest, Bass River State Forest, and Penn State Forest. The forests are popular hiking and canoeing destinations with numerous scenic trails and gentle rivers. The area is also a popular hunting destination known for its abundant white-tailed deer, bear, and low hunting pressure. Numerous industrial ruins and ghost towns dating as far back as the Revolutionary War can also be observed. Weymouth Furnace (below) was an iron works and paper mill before it was abandoned in 1887.

Image: Weymouth Furnace

Image: Weymouth Furnace

The Pine Barrens has escaped development in part because the sandy soil makes conventional agriculture unfeasible. However, with its numerous swamps and bogs, the region has become a major producer of cranberries. Blueberry farming is also popular. Using wild blueberries from the Pine Barrens, Elizabeth White developed the first cultivated varieties in 1916.

Image: www.pinterest.com

Image: www.pinterest.com

It’s almost hard to believe that a wilderness this large and unspoiled can exist in such close proximity to New York, Philadelphia, and Washington D.C. Guess you’ll just have to see it to believe it!

Mullica River

Mullica River (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Great Blue Heron, Cranberry Harvest White's Bo...

Great Blue Heron, Cranberry Harvest White’s Bog New Jersey (Photo credit: harmonica pete

Wharton State Forest Fire

A forest fire at a New Jersey state forest made big news on Monday in New York City.

The fire, which was in Wharton State Forest, caused a strong smoky smell that pervaded all over New York City, home of the ParksByNature office. Some even described the experience of waking up Monday morning like they were at a campsite with smoldering embers filling the air with smoke and haze.

Smoke in New York City

New York City Monday Morning
[Image: www.gothamist.com/2014/04/07/why_nyc_smells_smoke.php]

The fire started at about 3:30 pm on Sunday. The smoke plume could be seen, as well as smelled, in Philadelphia and New York City.

As of the posting of this article, the causes of Wharton’s forest fire are still unknown. Common natural causes of wildfires like this are lightning, sparks created by rockfalls, and even volcanoes. Human negligence, like not disposing of cigarette butts or even the way we deal with leaves in fall!, can cause these fires.

This was a pretty routine forest fire at this time of year, officials say. There were some unusual weather conditions, though, that made this fire a little more noteworthy.


The unusual weather condition was called was an atmospheric condition called inversion.

Inversion is when temperatures increase as you go up in altitude, rather than decrease (which would be the norm). This leads to smog or smoke being forced closer to the ground where it can cause numerous problems.

The fact that it coincided with the inversion weather phenomenon is what made this fire so newsworthy and why it smelled like smoke in New York City on Monday.

Smoke in New York City

Inversion in Action in Shanghai 1993
[Image: www.upload.wikimedia.org/wikipedia/commons/4/4a/Sha1993_smog_wkpd.jpg]

Also, a lack of humidity left the blaze to smoke all night long. This is why the smoky smell was so strong and traveled so far from the source (90 miles)!

The Aftermath

Wharton State Forest is 110,000 acres and the fire burnt about 1,500 acres of the park. Despite the damages, visitors are still encouraged to enjoy the large unaffected area of Wharton State Forest, as well as plenty of other state parks in New Jersey and New York while Wharton recovers! 

Forest Fire

Putting out the blaze
[Image: www.philadelphia.cbslocal.com/2014/04/07/smell-from-new-jersey-brush-fire-carries-to-nyc/]

Pilot Mountain Reopens After Wildfire Damages 675 Acres

The Winston-Salem Journal reports that 675 acres were affected. [Image: www.VisitSouth.com

The Winston-Salem Journal reports that 675 acres were affected. [Image: www.VisitSouth.com

Pilot Mountain State Park in North Carolina has reopened after a wildfire ravaged parts of the area almost two weeks ago.

The Winston-Salem Journal reports that 675 acres were affected, and trees near the mountain’s summit have to be removed. The fire was reportedly started to regenerate the forest, but got “out of control.”

The Journal also reports that a new bike trail may be in the works as a result of the fire.

“They’re probably going to have to have heavy equipment, bulldozers, up there anyway,” said Ken Putnam, a local businessman. “Spend a little, add something to an already popular park and make a lot. Think about it.”

The article goes on to say that Pilot has separate hiking and horse trails and none for non-certified bikers, which would be a part of Putnam’s plan.

Putnam suggests bulldozing parts of the mountain and getting started on the trail.

“The stars have to align for projects like that,’ said Charlie Peek, a spokesman for the N.C. Division of Parks and Recreation. “It’s not something that’ll happen in a couple of months. But … there were lines cleared out for dozers to fight the fire. It’s not a neat little circle, but it could be pieced together. Any way to make use of them.”

Most of the park’s area will be opened to visitors within the coming days including campgrounds, picnic areas, and most overlooks, according to the article. [Winston-Salem Journal]