Wildfires are uncontrolled fires that occur in forests, provoked by lightning strikes and human error. The majority of human caused fires are reported and dealt with quickly, but if a fire happens in a remote area, it can be much more different.

There are many that occur each year. We've all heard of the California wildfires, and there are at the time of writing this article wildfires in Quebec, north of La Tuque. The smoke has been seen as far away as Montreal and in the United States, and has caused some health problems for some people as well.

The fires cause much ravage to the forest and its inhabitants. However, there is a positive side, and that is that forests often can come back as beautiful as ever, at least sometimes.

If you are ever in the forest when a wildfire happens, do exactly as these deer in the photo to the right have done, if you have the occasion to. If the fire is downwind of your position, head upwind because the fire will travel less quickly against the wind.

If you are caught in a wildfire, here are some things to consider:

  • Do not go uphill thinking to outrun it because the fire can travel rather quickly uphill, especially if there are uphill drafts of wind.
  • Fire can light trees on the other side of a ridge and start a fire on the other side, so beware.
  • The fire will travel less quickly downhill, so if that is the situation you find yourself in, at least you have a better chance, unless there are strange wind patterns that cause the downhill side to light up very rapidly. This is a phenomena that has been discovered recently. Have a look at the video to the right around the 9:00 mark for the information.
  • Get to a river or other body of water if possible and take refuge in it.
  • Cover your mouth and nose to help you to deal with the smoke. Goggles will help to protect your eyes, and are good for other times outdoors as well.
  • Wildfires are often several kilometers in length, so if you are downwind of the fire, do not attempt to get upwind of the fire by trying to get around it, unless you are certain that you know exactly where the perimeter is and if there are no better options.
  • If you know that there is a river near the end of the fire line and that you can make it there, get into the river and let the fire get passed you, then that seems to be an option worth taking. If not, you'll have the fire chasing you through the forest.
  • If you have a cellphone and GPS receiver, use them. However, there is no guarantee of a signal for the phone so do NOT depend on it. Perhaps the area you are traveling through has reception, and this is something you should find out before going out. If you have a separate GPS receiver (not the one in a smartphone if that is what you have), you might be able to send a text message out with the coordinates from the GPS to a contact that can relay your position to rescuers. A text might get through where you can't make a voice contact. HOWEVER, this is NOT a guarantee, but merely a possibility and you should always plan for the what may happen in the area you are going for the time of the year etc., and to prepare accordingly, and not to take unnecessary risks. GPS receivers may not work under the right conditions as well, so be aware of that.

This is another good reason to have a map and compass with you at all times when venturing out into the wilderness, as well as to have made a pre-trip plan. The map, properly oriented to the land, will give you information on where the lakes and rivers are. You then determine what the best route is to get out of danger.

If you don't have a map and you do not know the area that well, you may never know that there is a river just a kilometer away that could save you, as an example. So ALWAYS have a map and compass with you, and know how to use them. Also, know your position on the map at all times so that you can situate yourself in your surroundings. Plan your trip properly and ask the forest service personnel what the risks for wildfires are, and follow their counsel.

Wildfires in Canada

The following information is from the Get Prepared site of the Government of Canada.

For more info on wildfires

Canadian Forest Service - Forest fires in Canada

Canadian Wildland Fire Information System

Wildfires are a natural hazard in any forested and grassland region in Canada. The regions with the highest wildfire occurrence are British Columbia, and the Boreal forest zones of Ontario, Quebec, the Prairie provinces, and the Yukon and Northwest Territories.

Wildfire facts

  • Approximately 8,000 wildfires occur each year in Canada.
  • The average area burned in Canada is 2.5 million ha/year.
  • Fires caused by lightning represent 45% of all fires, but because they occur in remote locations and often in clusters, they represent 81% of total area burned.
  • Human-caused fires represent 55% of all fires. They occur in more populated areas and are usually reported and extinguished quickly.

How to prepare for a wildfire

If your community is surrounded by brush, grassland or forest, follow these instructions to prepare your home and family for potential wildfires.

  • Prepare an emergency kit.
  • Check for, and remove, fire hazards in and around your home, such as dried out branches, leaves and debris.
  • Keep a good sprinkler in an accessible location.
  • Learn fire safety techniques and teach them to members of your family.
  • Have fire drills with your family on a regular basis.
  • Maintain first-aid supplies to treat the injured until help arrives.
  • Have an escape plan so that all members of the family know how to get out of the house quickly and safely.
  • Have a emergency plan so family members can contact each other in case they are separated during an evacuation.
  • Make sure all family members are familiar with the technique of "STOP, DROP, AND ROLL" in case of clothes catching on fire.
  • Make sure every floor and all sleeping areas have smoke detectors.
  • Consult with your local fire department about making your home fire-resistant.
  • If you are on a farm/ranch, sheltering livestock may be the wrong thing to do because a wildfire could trap animals inside, causing them to burn alive.
  • Leaving animals unsheltered is preferable, or if time and personal safety permits, evacuation away from the danger zone should be considered.

If you see a wildfire approaching your home

If you see a fire approaching your home or community, report it immediately by dialing 9-1-1 or your local emergency number. If it is safe, and there is time before the fire arrives, you should take the following action:

  • Close all windows and doors in the house.
  • Cover vents, windows, and other openings of the house with duct tape and/or precut pieces of plywood.
  • Park your car, positioned forward out of the driveway. Keep car windows closed and have your valuables already packed in your car.
  • Turn off propane or natural gas. Move any propane barbeques into the open, away from structures.
  • Turn on the lights in the house, porch, garage and yard. Inside the house, move combustible materials such as light curtains and furniture away from the windows.
  • Place a ladder to the roof in the front of the house.
  • Put lawn sprinklers on the roof of the house and turn on the water.
  • Move all combustibles away from the house, including firewood and lawn furniture.
  • Evacuate your family and pets to a safe location.
  • Stay tuned to your local radio station for up-to-date information on the fire and possible road closures.

What to do during a forest fire or wildfire

  • Monitor local radio stations.
  • Be prepared to evacuate at any time. If told to evacuate, do so.
  • Keep all doors and windows closed in your home.
  • Remove flammable drapes, curtains, awnings or other window coverings.
  • Keep lights on to aid visibility in case smoke fills the house.
  • If sufficient water is available, turn sprinklers on to wet the roof and any water-proof valuables.

Include this page in your emergency plan

If you live in an area surrounded by brush, grassland or forest, print this information and include copies in your emergency plan and emergency kit.


Fire Tornado

Mild language at 1:01 if you are sensitive to this, otherwise a very informative video worth watching.

Wildfire in Bitterroot National Forest in Montana, United States. John McColgan (USDA)