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Getting Outside During Fire Season

Getting Outside During Fire Season

Fire season is a fact of life for many of us here in the United States. Each year it seems as if the smokey skies last just a little bit longer than they did the year before. Wildland fires span public, private and tribal land boundaries indiscriminately, impacting the lives of the people that live and recreate there.

Fire area closures and restrictions have been know to shut down entire national parks, national forests and trail systems to public access due to concerns over public safety. The resulting smokey skies from wildland fires contain particulates at various levels that can be anywhere from a smelly distraction to being downright hazardous to public health.

To add to the confusion surrounding wildland fires, interpreting restrictions or area closures across land ownership boundaries can be convoluted as well.

2003 was my freshman year of college at the University of Montana where I competed in long distance running events for the Grizzlies. That fall, the Bitterroot Valley was socked in daily with the smoke of all the surrounding wildfires burning. The amount of particulates in the air from the smoke was concerning to the health of many. My collegiate cross country coach encouraged my teammates and I to take our training off the trails and do our runs indoors on treadmills due to concern over the impact the dangerous smoke levels could have on our lungs and health.

That was my first experience with unhealthy smoke levels affecting everyday activities. Fast forward almost 20 years now, I’ve experienced many more summers of smokey skies and had wildfires make me change or alter my plans at the last minute. Hopefully by sharing some wildland fire experiences and resources, the Tales of A Mountain Mama Team can help your family to navigate recreating outdoors safely during the upcoming fire season!

wildfire burning in timber in eastern Montana. Getting outside during fire season
Wildland fires can make you change your plans at the last minute. Be prepared, be flexible and have a back up plan so your summer outdoor recreation adventures still happen!

Mountain Mamas Share Tales About Wildfires Altering Outdoor Recreation Plans

Whether you have or haven’t experienced wildfire season in the U.S., chances are you will eventually if you travel and recreate here. Fellow Tales of A Mountain Mama Team Member, Mary Burton, shared the following story about how her family bike trip in Idaho was cut short due to wildfires in 2020.

Mary said, “In 2020, we did a bike tour in Northern Idaho. It was awesome on the trail of the CDA (Coeur D’ Alene), but then one morning we woke up to thick, thick smoke (like way worse than any wildfire smoke I’ve experience while hiking, etc). We packed up and biked a ways on the highway and eventually some lady pulled over and picked us up because it was terrible.”

She goes on to say that her family ended up in a hotel for a few days, hoping the smoke would dissipate and the air would clear up. Unfortunately, it didn’t clear up. They next opted to rent a U-Haul trailer to load their bikes into and drove a few hours away, hoping to get out of the smoke and find clear skies, but they had no luck!

Mary says, “After a few more days cycling, we finally just ended the trip early. It was so terrible! The smoke sucked all the joy out of it! It was like biking through a colorless wasteland, and it was draining just to be in it. We all had sore throats and coughs for weeks. And now we are all paranoid to plan anything during fire season.”

Man biking along road in thick smoke with children.
Photo courtesy of Mary Burton. The thick smoke from area wildfires made her family alter and then cut short a family bike trip in Idaho.

Jackie Semmens of Helena, MT and fellow Tales of A Mountain Mama Team Member, is also quite familiar with wildfire smoke altering outdoor recreation plans. With multiple asthmatics in her family and a family member who is a public health researcher on air quality, she takes the issue of being outdoors in the smoke very seriously.

Jackie recalls a family camping trip in 2021 where the air quality due to smoke was described as, “moderate,” by the Air Quality Index (meaning air quality is described as acceptable, but could pose a risk to some, especially those unusually sensitive to air pollution). Even the moderate levels of smoke were so irritating to her family’s lungs that they decided one night of camping in such conditions was too much and not worth the potential risk.

This is summer (aka fire season) in many Western states. If you’re lucky, rain or snow blankets the active fires, thus diminishing the smoke they are producing. Otherwise, you may be stuck with days to MONTHS of smokey skies with poor air quality. The best thing you can do is be informed, be prepared, be ready to change plans and have a backup plan!

Child playing in river sand bar with smokey background from wildfires.
Photo courtesy of Mary Burton. With information and resources provided here, you will have many of the tools necessary to determine if you and your family should be recreating outdoors during smokey conditions.

Commonly Asked Questions About Getting Outside in Smoky Conditions

Wildland fire is complex and is a part of life and reality across the United States, particularly in the western states. Hopefully by trying to answer a few commonly asked questions regarding recreation during wildfire season, you will be able to make better informed decisions regarding recreating safely outdoors with your family this fire season.

Where Is the Smoke Coming From?

“Where is all this smoke coming from?” Or “Where is the fire?” are probably the two most common questions I have heard people ask whenever there is smoke in the air. Everyone is curious because they can see, smell or even taste the smoke, and the bottom line is, they want to know if they are, “safe.”

Are they physically near a fire and in danger? Should they be evacuating their home? Whether it’s a clear day and you can actually see the distinct column of smoke coming from a wildland fire, or you live somewhere that is socked in with poor visibility and air quality due to lingering smoke from wildland fires, you can find out where that smoke is coming from.

All the smoke produced by wildfires goes somewhere. During stable atmospheric conditions or temperature inversions, smoke will linger in the area it is produced. When the atmosphere is unstable, the smoke from a wildfire rises high up into the atmosphere (remember hot air rises) before it gets carried elsewhere by the winds.

This is why for example, large fires burning in the Western states can impact neighboring states and those far away. Fires burn and tend to grow rapidly under unstable atmospheric conditions, and the resulting smoke is carried by the winds and deposited elsewhere with a stable atmosphere and voila! That area is now socked in with poor air quality and low visibility. While living in Montana, we experienced this often with smoke from wildfires in other western states and Canada being carried to Montana on the wind and diminishing our air quality.

To find out where the fires are, or where the smoke is coming from, please visit:

With this information regarding fire locations and smoke dispersal, you can begin to get an idea regarding whether the smoke you are seeing, smelling or tasting is the result of one or many fires. You can also determine if the fires are nearby or faraway. This can also help you to formulate a plan regarding your outdoor recreation activities. Perhaps it smokey only in your area, but clear just over the ridge in the next valley over?

Screenshot of a smoke map depicting fires burning along west coast and resulting smoke covering expansive area to the East 2 states.
This is a screen shot of a smoke map taken during the 2017 fire season. It illustrates how smoke from the fires burning in California, Oregon and Idaho was carried East on the winds, thus impacting states as far away as Montana, Wyoming and Colorado.

Where Do I Find Information About the Air Quality?

The follow up question to, “Where is the fire? Where is the smoke coming from?” is, “Is it safe to go outside?” Here I will state, if the area you plan to recreate in is closed due to wildfire activity, DO NOT ENTER! Fire managers close off trails, roads and sometime even entire national forests to keep the public safe. Be a good role model for your family and friends and treat our wildland firefighters and land managers with respect by heeding the area closures and restrictions. Do not put yourself and those managing wildfires at risk because you chose to ignore the, “CLOSED: due to fire activity,’ signs.

So, is it “safe” to go outside? That depends on a variety of factors. Obviously, do not enter an active fire area, that IS unsafe. If the issue is air quality, it might depend on the smoke level. It also depends on your health or that of your family. Provided below are links to help you navigate and determine how “safe” it is for you and your family to go outside if there is smoke in your area.

To find more information regarding air quality due to smoke levels and what outdoor activities should be limited, please visit:

With this information, you can make an informed decision regarding your outdoor activities when the smoke is thick in the air. Generally speaking, older people, youth, and/or those with pre-existing health conditions, tend to be most sensitive to smoke levels and air quality. This does NOT mean that healthy people cannot be negatively impacted by air quality and smoke levels. Healthy people should take smokey conditions seriously and use their best judgement.

split photo with top depicting smokey conditions. Bottom photo shows what information would be shown on smoke map.
This photo is a screenshot illustrating what the smoke maps show and the correlating visibility due to smoke levels. The top photo was taken at the airport in Ronan, MT. Barely visible in the background are the Mission Mountains which are less than 5 miles away. The bottom photo is a screenshot of the the Air Quality Index (AQI) map taken at the same time as the photo from the Ronan airport above. On the AQI map, Ronan falls in the dark red/purplish area of the map which was rated as, “unhealthy” at the time.

Where Do I Find Information About Fire Restrictions?

Finding information about fire restrictions can be very complex. Typically, fire restrictions are implemented due to a combination of plant vegetation dryness (flammability), local fire weather forecast conditions (hot, dry, windy), and the calculated fire Energy Release Component (the BTUs per a square foot at the front of a fire). However, the reasons/causes for fire restriction implementation are sometimes not uniform or consistent across jurisdictional boundaries, thus further convoluting the issue.

Sometimes, some jurisdictions will also implement fire restrictions due to future expected weather or events associated with high human caused risk (high visitor numbers, fireworks celebrations associated with holidays, etc).

While living in a rural county in Eastern Montana, all burning, campfires, and fireworks were banned on privately owned and managed lands in that county. State managed areas (like fishing access sites and state parks) also implemented fire restrictions and banned campfires. However, within that county, was a national forest where no fire restrictions were implemented because the local conditions on national forest land were significantly cooler and wetter than they were on the adjacent private and state managed lands.

Thus in that scenario, campfires were ok and allowed on the national forest, but if you were planning to roast hot dogs or marshmallows over a campfire in a private campground or a state managed campground, they were not allowed. Imagine how frustrating that could be to visitors at one campground who aren’t allowed to build a campfire, but yet they can see the smoke from campfires up on the national forest!

It’s important to read and clearly understand an area’s fire restrictions. For example, during Stage 2 Fire Restrictions on the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest in Washington state, although open campfires and cooking over a charcoal grill may be banned (due to fire danger risk), cooking over a propane grill where the flame can be controlled would still be ok. In this scenario, you may consider investing in a Magma Crossover Firebox and Grill so that you can still enjoy some warm meals while out camping even if campfires and charcoal grills are not allowed.

To find out more information regarding fire restrictions, it is best to contact the managing unit of where you are planning to visit. This means directly contact the national forest ranger district, the camp ground host, the state park visitor center, the national park visitor information hotline, etc, to find out more information. Know before you go!

To find more information regarding fire restrictions, please directly contact the managing unit of the location you plan to visit.

To see a general example of what the fire restrictions on a national forest might be and what is allowed or banned, please visit this Fire Restrictions page of the Okanogan-Wenatchee National Forest:

Smokey Bear riding in ATV with firefighter in 4th of July parade.
I always associate Smokey Bear with fire restrictions. When recreating outdoors this year, remember Smokey Bear’s 5 rules of fire prevention: 1) Only YOU can prevent wildfires, 2) Always be careful with fire, 3) Never play with matches or lighters, 4) Always watch your campfire, 5) Make sure your fire is completely out before leaving it.

Where Do I Find Information About Specific Wildfires?

Similar to fire restrictions, finding information about specific wildfires or specific closure areas due to fire activity can be tricky, but tends to be more straight forward than navigating fire restrictions. Smaller fires are typically managed by the local firefighting resource, whether that is a volunteer, county, city, state, tribal or federal entity.

Larger fires that are more complex tend to have designated fire information teams assigned to relaying and providing fire information to the public. The most commonly used information website for wildland fires across the United States is InciWeb. That is where the most accurate information regarding wildland fires is shared publicly and kept updated.

Often, these bigger fires will also create a fire specific Facebook page to share the most recent and accurate information regarding specific fires, and provide a link for the public to ask questions and get responses quickly. What is important to keep in mind is that often during fast moving and rapidly growing wildland fires, it is hard to get accurate and timely information out fast enough. If you are social media savvy, also be wary of unofficial accounts and people sharing misinformation online.

Also worth referring to for wildfire information is the National Interagency Coordination Center Incident Management Situation Report. This website does not provide as detailed a daily update as InciWeb does, but is worth noting as it provides: at a glance quick stats on individual fires, fire predictive services information, links to geographic area daily fire reports, and the ten year average fire acres burned and number of fires.

Also please note, smaller or less complex wildfires to manage will NOT be listed on InciWeb or have their own dedicated Facebook page. To find out any available information about these smaller fires, it is best to identify and contact those who manage the land base where the fire is located (city, county, state, tribe, federal agency, etc).

To find up to date and accurate information out about specific wildland fires, please visit:

wildfire burning at night. glowing embers an hillside with smoke.
A fire burning in Eastern Montana at night. Not all fires are mentioned on InciWeb or the SIT report. For example, this fire burned hundreds of acres, but was not “complex” in its management. It was suppressed within a day and did not threaten any values at risk, therefore no information was shared widely and it just became one of the thousands of wildfires that nobody hears or reads about.

What Do I Do If Where I Want to Recreate Is Closed Due to A Wildland Fire Or Is Too Smokey to Safely Enjoy?

In 2017, lots of visitors to Montana were distraught when fires in Glacier National Park and the surrounding geographic area foiled their plans for a lovely, scenic family vacation. Due to the thick smoke and hazardous air quality conditions from the area wildfires, visitors who had travelled from far away could not actually see the scenic mountain peaks and glaciers that make Glacier National Park so famous. Also, the active wildfires in the park and beyond caused many closures, and the historic Sperry Chalet in Glacier National Park was actually severely burned during the Sprague Fire which burned a around 16,000 acres total.

During the time of the Sprague Fire, I was assigned as a Public Information Officer on the nearby Blue Bay Fire above Flathead Lake. During the two weeks I was assisting the Confederated Salish Kootenai Tribal Fire Management Officers with disseminating fire information, there were large fires burning allover NW Montana from essentially the Canadian border down to the Bitterroot Valley south of Missoula, MT, as well as west of Montana in Idaho, Oregon and Washington.

The smoke levels caused by all these fires were so hazardous that firefighting aircraft could not fly to fight the fires due to visibility. People were advised to stay indoors due to the unhealthy and hazardous levels of particulates in the air. From the Incident Command Base for the Blue Bay Fire, I could not see the Mission Mountains which were less than 5 miles away because the smoke was so thick. There was really no where within a day’s drive of Northwestern Montana where people could go to escape the smoke other than indoors.

When planning an outdoor recreation trip, be prepared with a back up plan! For example folks that were planning to visit the Sperry Chalet obviously could not due to direct fire threat. Then, they had to deal with the issue that everywhere outdoors in Northwestern Montana was shrouded in thick, hazardous smoke levels. What would you do? Would you be fine with driving over 8 hours or more to hunt for clear skies and fresh air? Would you reschedule your trip for a different time of year? Or would you cancel the trip completely?

Helicopter grounded due to thick smoke at airport and unable to fly due to low visibility.
Barely visible in the background due to hazardous smoke levels, are the Mission Mountains which lie less than 5 miles from Ronan, MT. Here a helicopter waits for the smoke to lift so it can fly safely over the Blue Bay Fire above Flathead Lake.

How Will You Get Outside During Fire Season?

These are all considerations for planning outdoor recreation during fire season. Fire restrictions. Area and trail closures. Unhealthy and hazardous air quality levels and diminished views due to smoke. Personally, I have a somewhat skewed threshold for recreating outdoors in the smoke after working in fire management for 12.5 years. When the public was told to stay indoors, I was still out there doing my job.

Now as a parent, I have to think about my young kids. What I may have been comfortable recreating in before, I have to consider how it will impact their little developing lungs and long term health. So far, we’ve done just fine to wait to go outside until later in the day when the temperatures and winds arise, carrying smoke up and out of the valley we live in, clearing things up for awhile. Sometimes we just drive a few hours or at least onto the other side of the mountains to explore a new piece of the world that doesn’t look smokey on the smoke maps.

My family typically doesn’t plan multi day outdoor trips in the summer. For my kids and I, we do shorter adventures and day trips exploring the areas nearer to where we live. My husband works in wildland fire management, so we don’t see him often in the summer because he’s gone helping to manage all the big fires you see on the news. We save our multi day family trips for late fall and winter when we know he won’t be called in to work and wildland fires are less likely to foil our outdoor recreation plans in one way or another.

Father and 2 small children sitting on riverside sand bar with smokey skies from wildfire in the background.
Photo courtesy of Mary Burton. Wildfires and thick smoke can be a bummer, but it’s up to you to make the most of your summer adventure time!

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