Wilderness Fire: An Unexpected Retreat From Our Retreat, by L.F.P.

We have a boat-in only glamorous camping (“glamping”) retreat on a large lake in the West on the very edge of Wilderness-designated public forest land. The nearest road is more than three miles away. We were there in early August on summer vacation from the city. Several small lightning-caused wilderness fires had been burning for more than a month during the ongoing drought conditions. These fires flared up in very rugged terrain due to a rare severe August windstorm with gusts above 60 mph. The smoke had started to get noticeable on the lake and light ash was raining down from the fires which were over fifteen miles away and on the other side of the lake. Firefighters were quickly overwhelmed by the wind-driven flames with dry conditions and retreated. Containment of the fires was suddenly near 0%. Air assets were deployed mostly elsewhere in the state and region. These normally available but now missing air assets contributed to our prolonged calm since large growing or threatening wildfires usually are accompanied by lots of helicopter and airplane noise. We only witnessed spotter planes twice per day. We felt safe both in distance from the fire and being on the other side of the lake. There were lots of natural rocky firebreaks due to the mountainous terrain. We planned a late day excursion up the lake to view the fires as it got darker. We had also seen the fires in previous weeks. Anybody who has not seen an actual wildfire is in for some grim excitement. This was a very fine stretch of inaccessible roadless wilderness that unfortunately was on fire. The wind had kept the lake free of heavy smoke.

When we were halfway to our planned view of the fire, the smoke quickly and suddenly got heavier down at the lake, and the falling ash became bad enough that we were getting ash-blasted at 35 mph in the 25 foot boat. It was difficult to see without protective glasses at that speed. We changed plans and headed back to the retreat. Once there it was obvious that the smoke on the entire lake was getting far worse due to wind shift and increasing fire. By now the kids were joking that we should enjoy the ash because it was the best snow we would likely get this year! The previous winter had been a bust at most ski areas. Suddenly we noticed a steady film of grey wet ash all over the top of the very large lake. Mother nature and wild fires can be amazing. By now you could look directly at the lowering sun with bare eyes. The other side of the lake was now invisible. Visibility became one half mile or less on a sunny cloudless day. A few people were still tubing and skiing on the lake.

As adults we were getting more worried. Two of the eight kids had slight asthma. Steady, heavy smoke isn’t healthy for anyone. We were not convinced that it would not become worse. Days later the air quality would be retroactively classified as “hazardous.” The nearest hospital, if needed, was a thirty minute high speed boat ride away or a twenty minute high speed boat ride and a 40 minute car ride. There was a real possibility that the ash would become heavier and maybe spread the fire closer upon us. It would be dark soon.We were wilderness fire veterans and had been through this before in past years. The news reports weren’t good and tourists and some locals were fleeing the area in haste due to the conditions. Then we heard news of a new rapidly growing fire that was causing the evacuation of the nearest town and it’s hospital. The town was in real potential trouble. Roads were closing,evacuations were becoming mandatory in areas 10 miles away and also in several new large areas further North and one area only six miles away over several major ridges. Fire officials were calling for backup that wasn’t available. A few days later authorities made the unusual call for previously-trained citizen volunteers to assist. The fire and smoke and ash situation had deteriorated badly in just a few hours of unseasonable weather change, drought conditions,and high winds. We made the cautious decision to bug out from this local disaster while it was mostly still daylight out. We quickly packed one bag each, left everything else, and headed across the lake in the boat as it was getting dark. We made it to the Suburbans and then headed toward the nearest mid-sized city that news reports said was mostly unaffected. The kids were livid that we were leaving the cabin and thought it totally unnecessary. What was some smoke and a little ash?

We planned on getting a motel room in the un-named mid-sized city but had a friend in the area and family in the area as backup. We were also only three hours from home. Roads were still staying open in the area we were. As it turns out it took over a half hour with four people each on the phone to find an available hotel room. The only one left was an expensive 2 bedroom suite but we took it with our group. The kids were soon enjoying themselves. The adults were a little stressed.

Our backup plan? For various reasons family and friends were unavailable,unable, or unwilling to take us on short notice. We didn’t push it but we learned a lesson! We ended up leaving our vacation a few days earlier than planned. The area where we obtained the hotel suite was “smoked-out” toward the late morning and we left for home. This was in effect areverse bugout!

In the end, we learned that our retreat was fine. But others in the area weren’t so lucky. A friend couldn’t retrieve his trailer for weeks when he left it in a hurry. Roads remained closed for three weeks and dangerous due to downed power lines, tumbled-down large rocks and rock slides, and downed trees and fences and guard rails with burned posts. Hundreds of homes and some businesses in town burned including waterfront homes that had obvious water sources nearby. Boats and docks even went up in flames fueled by fiberglass and fuel tanks. Trees,rocks, and power lines covered some roads. Fences burned. Both domestic and wild animals were all on the move, some injured by fire.

I am glad that we did not take chances by staying or even just staying any longer. We did several things wrong: We left our camping gear and sleeping bags at the retreat. We didn’t take enough of the food and water that we left at the retreat. At one point I was worried that was going to be a real regret. We took longer than we should have to bail out because we were still enjoying ourselves and entertaining ourselves with the situation. We also misjudged the situation because the lack of government response (no large amount of helicopter noise as there had been on past large wildfires) but that was due to their being overwhelmed. That is something to keep in mind: the government response was fairly quickly overwhelmed for over a week due to other regional uses on other wildfires including international wildfires and therefore the response was not as expected for the situation. By the time we left the direction we needed to go was open and safe, but it could have been different. In a larger regional or national disaster I would have been far more worried about security and refueling. There was some theft and looting but LEOs acted within days by publicly posting patrols. A couple of locals also needed to make their shotguns visible to turn unknowns away from where they shouldn’t have been.

We did several things right: We could have gone back to the retreat and wisely left that option open. Our vehicles and boat had plenty of fuel in them as is my habit even on vacation. That was crucial because businesses including gas stations and marinas were all evacuating or in closed areas. We left the retreat with several options available: Public services, family and friends, or going all the way home. The entire time we stayed in touch with several current local news sources and official web sites and knowledgeable friends. This would have been more difficult or impossible if cellular, internet, or power grids were down. Even on vacation, carry a radio communication device that is independent of the electrical grid, the cellular system, and the internet, such as a CB radio as a minimum. We had enough fuel to get home, but that may have been different if the disaster was larger geographically, more people were on the move clogging up roads, or if we weren’t able to get directly where we were going.

I was the only real “prepper” in the group, and much of this was not obvious to the ones who had never thought this type of situation through or at least read about it. Interestingly, the kids who had seen survival shows were much more aware than even some of the adults. Fire and smoke is a real threat in many retreat locations. In our case the fire had not even reached within six miles of us on our side of the lake. – L.F.P.