How to stay fire-smart when hiking

Inspiring and educating our community about the importance of a relationship with the outdoors is fundamental to Kathmandu. We are lucky to call New Zealand our home – a place like nowhere else on earth. Turquoise glacial waters flow down from darkly-cloaked mountain tops that are often only a short drive from some of the country's largest cities. For this reason, Kiwis have a relationship with their backyard like almost no one else. Meanwhile, across the Tasman in the country where we opened our first store in 1987, a vast continent of endless sienna deserts, ancient rainforests, and awe-inspiring coastlines beckons those from around the world to explore what Australia has to offer.

Hiking is the single-most popular and treasured way that our community interacts with the natural world. It far outweighs any other activity, perhaps because we all appreciate the way in which slowly passing through natural environments gives us a chance to refresh and reconnect with the world around us, doing our body and minds untold benefit.

But this connection is made harder by increasingly volatile and extended fire seasons, especially in Australia, where during the summer of 2019/20 news media reported over 7.7 million hectares of land had been burned by the end of January of that season (February is seen as one of the most dangerous periods of Australia's fire season). 

During this season, all national parks on the New South Wales South Coast were closed, as were the famous alpine Kosciuszko National Park and nine national parks in the southern state of Victoria. Fire is now making a real and measurable impact on our ability to experience nature in the ways that benefit us most. In 2019, a team from Griffith University extrapolated study figures from 20,000 people and found that, while Australia currently spends about 10% of GDP on mental health, if national parks didn't exist and people had no access to these natural environments, that cost would blow out to approximately 17.5% of GDP. In other words, the team found that Australia's national parks were worth $145 billion to the country's economy. 

There are some key ways you can continue to enjoy a relationship with the outdoors through hiking without significant risk of encountering fires. The most obvious and best way is to hike outside of peak summer periods and fire seasons, and to consider hiking during winter. To help keep you safe when out hiking during those hotter months, we have listed some ways to stay fire-smart in the outdoors and what to do if you do encounter fire during a hike. This information draws from expert advice provided by the NSW National Parks and Wildlife Service.

Before you go

Being fire-smart starts at home; before you load up the car and hit the outdoors.

Tell somebody where you’re going

Once you’ve worked out where you’ll be, let a family member or friend know your plans. Give them the exact details of the location you intend to be, the direction you’ll be heading, who you are with, what equipment you have and when you expect to be back.

If you’ll be hiking in a remote part of a national or state park, talk to the rangers as well when you arrive so they also have those details logged.

It might seem unnecessary, especially if you’re only planning a short day hike, but if something does go wrong unexpectedly you’ll be thankful that somebody can tell the authorities of your approximate whereabouts.

Read fire services' warnings

In the leadup to your adventure keep an eye on the fire conditions so you can make an informed decision about whether it safe or not to go ahead with your plans. If the fire danger rating is rising, and the weather looks like it will be hot and windy, it might be time to reconsider your trip.

When you’re outdoors

Now that you’ve laid out your plan for family and the authorities, it’s time to be ‘in the moment’ when it comes to being fire-smart.

Monitor the fire conditions

Once you’re in the outdoors, chat with park rangers and other hikers to see how conditions are. Keep an eye on the weather and be ready to react if you see smoke, increased or changed wind direction or intense heat.

Also make sure you adhere to any fire bans that may be in place. This may include not using gas cookers if the fire danger is high.

Be prepared to evacuate if necessary

If conditions start to deteriorate or you receive a warning about an imminent fire threat, be prepared to abandon your hike at a moment’s notice and evacuate to safer ground.

 

This doesn’t mean you should wait until something is wrong to formulate a plan. Rather you should be acutely aware of what exactly you will do in case of emergency before you start your adventure, and be on the lookout for any potential changes to the route as you move deeper into the outdoors.

What to do if you’re caught in a fire when hiking/camping

Bushfires can grow and move extremely quickly, and if you find yourself in a dire situation, it’s important to know exactly what to do to protect yourself and your party.

 

This advice has been informed by bushfire rescue experts at NSW National Parks and Wildlife Services. Memorise these steps and follow them in case of emergency.

 

  • Call emergency services and describe the situation clearly and quickly, as well as your current location, how many people are in your party, what equipment (if any) you have and the current state of everybody’s health.
  • If you see smoke ahead, turn back. Look at the smoke to assess wind direction. If it is rising vertically without spreading much, this indicates low wind and is a good sign. If it is spread thinly along the horizon in a particular direction, this tells you that the wind is fuelling its velocity and direction. 
  • Do not panic, and do not try to outrun a fire.
  • Do not retreat uphill. Always look for lower ground. Fires travel faster uphill as the fire has an opportunity to preheat foliage in front of it as it climbs. For every 10˚ of downhill slope, the fire will halve its speed, so seek out lower ground. However, avoid canyons and other closed in areas. These can create vacuums in which oxygen is sucked in to aggressively fuel a fire. 
  • Look for a cleared area and move safely to it. Identify any potential firebreaks, such as creeks, roads, rocky outcrops or embankments. Clear the area as much as possible. If you can find a shelter under which you can hide, use a wetted material blanket to cover the shelter.
  • If you have wool clothes, put these on rather than anything synthetic.
  • Keep low and cover all skin. Stay hydrated and dampen a cloth to cover your mouth. (If you have enough water, dampen your clothes. If you are lying down on the ground, dig out space below your head in which you can more easily breathe, while also covering yourself in dirt.
  • If safe to do so, move to terrain that has already been burnt once the fire passes. Do not be tempted to rush off as soon as you think a fire has passed, as wind direction can bring the fire back.

What to do if you’re in your car when a fire approaches

If you are driving and come across a fast-moving fire, this is how you should act.

  • Call 000 and describe the situation clearly and quickly, as well as your current location, how many people are in your party, what equipment you have and the current state of everybody’s health.
  • Find a clear area to park your car, off the road and away from tall grass, trees and scrubs..
  • Point your car towards the fire.
  • Do not leave your car. Close all windows and air vents, get down as low as possible to avoid radiant heat, and cover yourself with a woolen blanket if you have one. 
  • Turn off your engine, but leave your headlights and hazard lights on.
  • Stay hydrated throughout the entire ordeal.
  • Get a damp cloth and cover your mouth.
  • Once the fire has completely passed, leave the car carefully. It will be very hot, so avoid touching any metal.

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