Wildland Firefighters stage their gear to battle the Caldor Fire in 2021. Photo courtesy of Sie So.
Editor’s note: If you missed Part 1 of our series, be sure to check it out. It examines the forces at play causing wildfires, as well as the bigger-picture impacts to hikers and humans. In Part 2 below, we hear on-the-ground, first-person stories of encountering wildfires and their effects. It brings home what the data means to everyday life both on and off trail.
Sie So is a Triple Crowner, a fellow Marine Infantry Veteran, and for the last two years has worked as a seasonal wildland firefighter. He is no stranger to adversity or facing tough challenges. As a firefighter, he’s deployed to California, Montana, Idaho, Utah, and New Mexico. “Pretty much wherever we’re needed,” Sie said.
“The data shows that fire behavior out West has exploded over the last couple decades. Every year, the fire season starts earlier and ends later. In California it’s pretty much fire ‘year’ now. Back in the 1980s a fire the size of 30,000 acres was considered ‘big.’ These days we have fires growing that much in half a day.”
Sie went on to talk about how the wildfires themselves can be extremely volatile because of the weather. They can spread over thousands of acres in just a few hours from strong winds alone.
“I went to the Caldor Fire in South Lake Tahoe in 2021, and it was crazy rolling in there after everyone had evacuated. I had visited that same city in 2016 when I hiked the Pacific Crest Trail. So it was weird seeing two sides of it. It was apocalyptic. Smoke everywhere, no people, trash in the streets, animals roaming the sidewalks, etc.”
The firefighters in Sie’s company spend a lot of their time digging lines into the earth, to prevent the spread of fires. When there is smoke in the air, they find themselves in full protective gear, bent over their work. The crew often sleeps onsite, for days, or weeks, on end.
“I remember lying in my tent one night and just seeing all the smoke inside, knowing I’d be breathing it in all night,” Sie said.
Fighting wildfires comes with psychological strains, as well as physical ones. The pressures can be immense. Sie put it succinctly when he said, “This job can ruin relationships.”
A fireline drawn into the mountains to prevent the spread of a fire in the Sawtooth Wilderness. September, 2021.
Wildfires and Local Trail Communities
Denise is a 58-year-old long time resident of the California beach town Santa Barbara. In 2008, she began biting off big chunks of the Pacific Crest Trail and is planning on hiking the Continental Divide Trail later this year. She’s also guided hikes through Los Padres National Forest and the Santa Ynez Mountains right in her backyard. Denise knows and deeply loves Southern California.
During our discussion, she talked about the way wildfires have affected her community the way you would talk about traffic; something that is a part of your everyday existence.
The coast near Santa Barbra, California.
In fact, Denise’s partner lost a home in a wildfire several years ago. The stress of it gravely affected the family — from financial hardship to figuring out how to rebuild. It ended up directly causing the dissolution of her partner’s previous marriage.
Denise also told me about how the 2017 Thomas Fire in Santa Barbara County, the seventh largest wildfire in California history, left a large burn scar near the community of Montecito. In January of the next year, a half inch of rain fell on the community in just 30 minutes, creating a flash flood that killed more than 20 people, leveled 129 homes, and damaged 17 businesses.
In one story from that flash flood, Denise recounted how a man’s home was broken in half, and the man had to ride the flood on a mattress to safety.
My Own Story of Escaping a Flash Flood
When wildfires burn an area, they desolate the soil and existing vegetation, resulting in what is called a burn scar. It takes time for the vegetation to regrow, and thus, for a while, nothing exists that can absorb rain, especially during monsoon season.
The first signs of new vegetation over a burn scar.
With sloping foothills and mountains right on the doorstep of countless cities and towns, what results are disastrous flash floods, like the one Denise described.
In summer 2020, a fire raged across Glenwood Canyon in Colorado. The Grizzly Creek Fire burned for four months, leaving the steep area desolate of any vegetation and creating a visible burn scar.
I was traveling on I-70, across Colorado and through Glenwood Canyon, in June 2021, before beginning the Weminuche High Route. I had stopped at a rest stop in the canyon to stretch my legs, when it began to slightly drizzle. I was just getting back to my car when a Colorado Department of Transportation vehicle swung around a corner and sped through the parking lot toward me and another nearby driver.
“You both need to leave NOW,” the DOT representative said firmly.
The other driver clearly knew what was going on, promptly following the directive. I, on the other hand, was confused, as I hadn’t yet moved out West yet. I lingered for a moment on the spot, trying to figure out the situation.
My uncertainty exasperated the DOT driver. “This place is about to flood. I don’t care what direction you go, but you need to leave. I’m following you out.”
I still wasn’t exactly sure what was happening, but I briskly got into my car and hastened out as the rain began to patter harder on my windshield.
I got out in time, but the interstate closed for what would turn out to be weeks behind me, with a mudslide devastating the area — temporarily changing the course of the Colorado River.
Wildfires lead to burn scars which can sometimes lead to flash flooding and mudslides.
The one mudslide I experienced wasn’t even the last one to affect that stretch of highway in 2021, impacting how people and goods moved across the country, and of course also impacting the small businesses along the interstate that serve this flow of commerce.
I’ll end this series with a short conversation I had with Jeremy, a prospective 2022 PCT thru-hiker.
He told me he was doom-scrolling through the IPCC climate report, "which is worse than their last one, which was also much worse than the previous one, and the one before that."
A recovering burn area in northern Colorado near the CDT shows scaring.
"I’m frankly scared about whether thru-hiking in the West will be viable much longer," Jeremy said.
“I’m grateful to have an early start date with better odds of making it through Northern California before this year’s fire season,” he said. “The fact that it’s not really a question anymore of whether they’ll start is grim.”
Last year, on the Pacific Northwest Trail, Jermey had a pretty remarkable experience helping a family get their livestock loaded and ready to evacuate while low-flying planes circled a nearby wildfire.
“The thing that sticks out in memory was that I ended up helping them because I had also found myself in a jam and they were the only ones around,” he said. “There’s a way these wildfires and climate change might make unexpected neighbors of us all.”
If you'd like to take action against climate change, consider donating time and/ or money to organizations on the front line, such as The Nature Conservancy, Ocean Conservancy, Rainforest Alliance, PCTA, ATC, CDTC, Sunrise Movement Education Fund, Environmental Defense Fund, etc.
More tips and resources for hikers dealing with wildfires and/or its effects (smoke!!!) can be found at the bottom of Part 1 of our series.
Rafael ”Horsecake” Mujica is a freelance writer and adventurer based in the Mountain West. You can find him trail running, backpacking, or sampling the best tacos during his free time. Follow all his adventures over on Instragam @horsecake22, or read more of his work over on his website.