How to Escape a Wildfire When You’re Hiking

On Labor Day weekend 2017, Oregon’s backcountry ignited, the night sky glowing red from flames. Peter Ames Carlin, his wife, and their three children were among 176 hikers who were surrounded by a wildfire on the Eagle Creek Trail, a short jaunt from Portland in the Columbia River Gorge National Scenic Area (NSA). As the blaze blocked a safe exit to the north, to the south, the Indian Creek Fire—which had been smoldering for months—reawakened and threatened to trap the hikers amid steep canyons.

“I was mostly in a stage of intense denial. We were on an easy day hike on a familiar trail we had hiked probably a dozen times over the years,” says Carlin, who lives in Portland. “But it was also a moment of you either walk or die. So you just go.” Smoke choked the air while embers showered down hell upon them, starting spot fires all over the forest. Most people were prepared only for a short day outside, wearing swimsuits or flip-flops and carrying nothing more than a bottle of water.

The ordeal had started just a few hours earlier, when a 15-year-old boy threw a firecracker into a nearby ravine. The dry conditions were ripe for a blaze—the National Weather Service (NWS) had issued a red flag warning for dry, unstable conditions that day. By late afternoon, roughly 200 acres had burned while Carlin and 147 other hikers were stranded near a popular swimming hole at Punch Bowl Falls. The massive group spent the night walking, hoping to make it out alive before flames consumed the footpath.

What to do?

 

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