As we head into fall this year, the West Coast is experiencing one of the most dramatic and devastating wildfire seasons on record. Hundreds of active fires are burning upwards of 4 million acres of land across California, Oregon, and Washington. The fires have led to mass evacuations, loss of life and property, and smoke that is visible across the country. National forests, campgrounds, and recreational areas in large portions of the West Coast are closed. Overall, the impact is widely felt, including in the outdoor tourism sector.
Fire season in California typically starts in August and lasts until the first winter rain or snow in October or November. As owners of a campground in Nevada City, California, the heart of Northern California fire territory, we have a lot of experience—directly and indirectly—with helping campers navigate traveling in fire country. Wildfires are a part of life, not only in California, but throughout the forested parts of the Western U.S. Being prepared and educated about wildfires is crucial to enjoying your RV vacation when you visit these beautiful areas.
Planning Ahead for an RV Trip During Wildfire Season
You can still enjoy an RV vacation during fire season, but you need to be prepared and plan ahead. Unlike some weather-related natural disasters, like hurricanes, wildfires are highly unpredictable. That means you may not have much warning on when a fire might break out, or if the places you want to visit will be impacted by fire or smoke. Once you have a better understanding of your personal camping profile and the potential impacts of fires on your trip, it will help you decide the best way to plan.
Here are some tips on how to prepare for the unexpected scenarios that might occur during a trip to areas that are prone to wildfires.
Can you be flexible?
Wildfires are a part of life out west, so understanding how they may impact your travels will go a long way toward helping you plan the RV trip that works for you. Ask yourself, how important is the location or campground you want to visit on your preferred dates? If both of those items are important, you may have to be flexible about the impacts of weather, smoke, and activities, since those can change last minute.
Are you sensitive to smoke?
You should also know how much smoke might bother you. If you’re adversely affected by smoke, consider booking a trip outside of fire season or along the coast where onshore winds can keep smoke at bay (although this isn’t a guarantee).
Can you go without a campfire?
If campfires and charcoal grilling are crucial parts of your camping experience, look for campgrounds that don’t typically have fire restrictions, or consider alternatives like gas fire pits and BBQs.
Will you be able to cancel reservations?
The best place to start your planning is to map out an itinerary and contact the campgrounds where you want to stay. Ask how far in advance you should book and what the cancellation terms are. Campgrounds don’t typically alter their cancellation and change policies unless their operations are directly impacted by an evacuation order. Things like smoke, wind, heat, and safety power shut-offs don’t usually change cancellation terms. To alleviate some of the uncertainty, consider travel insurance for your pre-paid reservations. This can take a lot of the anxiety away if you need to alter plans last minute due to fires.
What to Expect When Taking a Trip in Your RV During Wildfire Season
More than likely, your vacation to fire country will be trouble-free and full of beautiful scenery and memories. However, if there are fires, make sure you’re prepared for some of the scenarios you might encounter.
During the height of fire season, you should expect at least some smoke in the air. This is often the largest impact travelers will experience. RVs are uniquely equipped to deal with smoke because they can be fully closed up, unlike a tent. If you’re camping at a site with electricity, or you have a generator, you should include a small HEPA air purifier in your rig. This will filter out smoke particles, taking full advantage of the comforts an RV provides.
Finally, you will likely find fire bans at campgrounds. These can range from complete prohibition, including gas stoves and lanterns, to more measured restrictions. Fires in dispersed camping areas are almost never allowed during fire season, so if you plan to boondock, don’t anticipate being able to have a fire. These bans help reduce the likelihood of an errant ember sparking a fire, a common way for wildfires to start.
Preparing to Evacuate in Your RV During a Wildfire
Fires can start and grow extremely quickly and lead to evacuations. If you’re staying in a private campground, understand what the evacuation protocol is. You should be able to know under what circumstances an evacuation will be called and how it will be announced. Keep in mind that local law enforcement, not camp staff, will direct the evacuation, so consider signing up for local alerts.
In the best scenarios, evacuations progress in stages, from voluntary to mandatory. If you’re in a spot that is put under a voluntary evacuation, plan to leave; do not wait for a mandatory evacuation.
If you do need to evacuate, you will likely be able to just pack up camp and drive away to a safer place, but it’s a good idea to be prepared. Make sure your RV is ready to go. Top off your fuel and water tanks. If fire danger is extreme, consider keeping your trailer attached to the tow vehicle. However, if a fire is moving fast and an urgent evacuation is required, be prepared to leave your trailer behind. Make sure to evacuate with the “5 Ps”: all the people and pets in your party, any important papers, prescriptions, personal needs like toiletries and clothes, and any priceless items. Time is always critical, so make sure you grab the important items first to beat the fire’s advance.
When you leave, don’t assume that evacuation routes will be given to you. Know the roads in and out of the area you’re visiting and how to access them. Set a backup route, just in case your first choice is blocked. If there is only one road in and out of an area, allow more time to leave. Identifying your exit paths before you need them will provide peace of mind and precious time in an evacuation.
How to Check Wildfire Conditions
Not all wildfires are catastrophic, but you should know what areas are burning. Check out InciWeb for information on fires on federally managed lands. State fire agencies in California, Oregon, and Washington will have information about local fires.
How to Check Air Quality Conditions
Air quality is often the largest impact on outdoor vacations during fire season. Staying informed on current air quality index levels will help you make informed decisions on where and when to go. Air conditions change by the hour based on wind and fire behavior, so expect some changes even with the most thoughtful forward planning. AirNow, PurpleAir, and your local weather services are useful resources for checking current smoke levels in the areas you’re traveling to.
General Tips on Wildfire Prevention
Once you’ve arrived at your destination, make sure to practice proper fire prevention etiquette. You can help prevent wildfires by being responsible in your actions. Here are some tips:
- Keep your RV fire extinguisher, water, and a shovel handy at your campsite.
- Do not leave any flame unattended.
- Never play with matches, lighters, or combustible fuels.
- Make sure all campfires and BBQs are cold to the touch before leaving—douse with plenty of water and mix well into the ground.
- Keep all combustible items away from ignition sources.
- Follow all local burn restrictions.
- Get a campfire permit.
Finally, not all wildfires start with poorly managed campfires. Hot vehicle exhaust, sparks from dragging RV chains, and power tools like generators can all spark a fire. Keep any items that spark or can get hot away from combustible materials. Knowledge and awareness of your surroundings and fire prevention behaviors are your best defense in preventing a wildfire.
Wildfires are a natural part of many beautiful and popular camping areas around the U.S. By educating yourself and preparing accordingly, you can be ready if a fire impacts your RV vacation. Although fires are common, they are not usually ubiquitous, so as long as you’re prepared for them you can still enjoy your RV vacation.