(c) 1993, Willis Lamm, TrailBlazer Magazine

By Willis Lamm

Reprinted with permission of TrailBlazer Magazine for non-commercial use.

Imagine you and some friends are enjoying an afternoon ride in the foothills. You are in moderately open country, broken by handfuls of oak trees. The wind is whispering through golden, waist high grasses. As you descend around the curvature of one of the hills you notice below you a rather large and wide based column of smoke. The wind is blowing in your direction. What would you do?

Fortunately it's not very often that a horse and rider will be confronted with a threatening fire. However, when those situations do occur, it is extremely important for the rider to understand some basic fire behavior in order to avoid catastrophe.

I have often described most of California as a cyclical desert. It blooms during the winter rains and withers between the months of June and November. Many other regions experience more modest cycles where the lighter fuels, particularly grasses and light brush, can become tinder dry and an explosive fire hazard. It is during these periods when the rider needs to be alert to surrounding conditions.

The three most basic factors governing the behavior of a wildfire are type of fuel, geography and weather. Each plays a significant and reasonably predictable role in how a fire will act.


The quickest burning fuels are dry grasses and light brush. These are often described as flash fuels because they often burn extremely fast and extremely hot. Under many conditions, a field of ungrazed grass can produce wall of flames over ten feet tall travelling at a rate of over 20 MPH. Particularly in hilly country with up-slope winds, ungrazed grass can produce an unbelievably hot, rapid burning fire that the average rider cannot outrun.

Heavier fuels, such as ordinary trees, tend to burn much more slowly and much of the heat is distributed above ground dwellers, however they can produce significant radiant heat which in effect withers and pre-heats other nearby trees in the fire's path, adding to the rate of spread.

Certain trees, such as eucalypti and many varieties of pine, are not only heavy fuels but also contain resins or other properties which cause them to burn incredibly hot and fast. Oftentimes convected air currents caused by the fire will lift pieces of burning branches or other debris and deposit them well ahead of the main fire, creating numerous smaller fires. In a worst case scenario, this "spotting", as it is termed, develops into a full fledged firestorm such as occurred in Oakland in 1991.

The critical factors in how specific fuels burn are moisture and density. Light fuels, for example, burn more quickly but absorb moisture from the night air and are much less of a threat in the early morning than after standing in the sun all day. Denser fuels burn more slowly and are less affected by daily moisture cycles but they generate more heat and will burn for a much longer time once ignited.


The temperature factor is simple. For every 18 degrees (F) of increased temperature, the rate of combustion doubles. All other factors being equal, a fire one encounters in the heat of the day will be much more difficult to escape than one which starts in the early morning. By the same token, fuels above a fire, such as on a hill, tend to get preheated and will burn much more rapidly than fuels below the fire.


Wind provides the oxygen which is a necessary component for combustion. It also distributes heat which is absorbed by fuels in the path of the fire, causing them to burn much more rapidly. The most extreme example I have witnessed was in the desert near Rancho Cucamonga where the Santa Ana winds drove a fire with such intensity that it jumped Interstate 10 as if it wasn't there. Please note that I described this as a desert. It was mostly scattered sagebrush and cactus, but the heat and winds created flames that flared taller than the overhead utility lines.

So, how does one apply this knowledge and create an informal wildfire survival plan?

  1. Be aware of your surroundings. Just as you subconsciously gauge driving conditions while in your car, size up your riding environment. As the hazard increases, become more alert.

  2. Carry a map. Even when in a familiar area, you may have to leave customary trails in order to avoid a fire or other emergency, which is not a time to get lost.

  3. If you see smoke, don't dismiss it. Take note of which way the wind is blowing. Try to stay upwind and/or down-slope from the smoke until you can be sure that you are safe.

  4. If you find yourself above a fire, remember the effect that wind currents and heat have on fire behavior. The convected updrafts from wildfires tend to concentrate along vertical draws and hillside arroyos. Even the slightest up-slope indentation will create a chimney effect on the fire below. Many fire fighters have been killed while working around relatively insignificant "chimneys" because the fire and heat roared up and overcame them before they could scramble to safety less than 100 feet away.

    Even relatively mild indentations and minor upslope canyons along hillsides will collect hot currents from fires burning below which will updraft through these create chimneys. If you are trapped along a hillside, avoid locations where trails cross these chimneys. You are safer in the more convex, or outward rounding portions of the trail where hot currents are less concentrated ant the fire will be less severe when it crosses the trail.

    Also, since the fire will first pass over the trail where the chimneys are located, the rider can take refuge in a convex area, later crossing into the burned chimney area as the fire's intensity diminishes in order to avoid being surrounded by the fire when it eventually reaches the riders' point of refuge.

    If you think you might be in trouble, remember to find a broad, round, outfacing bend in the trail as that is where the fire will be the least severe and keep against the uphill side of the trail. Severe heat currents will be the most prevalent along the outside edge of the trail.

  5. If feasible, try to reach flat, grazed areas, ponds or streams, or other similar locations where the fuels may be short, more lush, and won't be affected by updraft currents.

  6. Avoid trails cutting across steep, grassy slopes unless the fire clearly does not threaten them.

  7. Stay calm. Smoke can cause some real problems to both you and your horse, particularly when out of breath.

  8. If trapped, you may need to consider letting the horse fend for itself. In unfenced open territory, its best chance of survival may by using its natural instincts. Be sure to remove the horse's bridle before releasing it. Your best chance of survival may simply be to lie in a ditch, cover yourself with as much non-combustible materials as you can find, and let the fire burn over you.

    Once on foot, one of the safest places to be when overrun by fire is inside an automobile. Exploding cars are Hollywood fiction. Even fire fighters are trained to not try to out-drive a closely approaching fire that they can't control. They park over bare ground and "hole-up" inside their vehicles. Also, trying to drive through dense smoke is an invitation to a fatality.

    If you can reach a vehicle, get inside, roll the windows up and cover them with opaque material if possible. Lay down low. Even if the vehicle you are in catches fire, you typically will have enough time for the main wall of intense, killer heat to pass before you have to "abandon ship". Don't exit the vehicle until the fire is clearly past you.

  9. The safest point in an uncontrolled fire is inside the burned area. If you are in an area with short fuels, you may be able to ride through the fire line into the burned area behind it. Trails, roads and other barren landforms can provide open doors into the burn where the horse won't have to step through actual flames. It will be hot and smoky there, but you will have avoided the intense, killing heat of the fire front.

  10. Be alert for other wildlife escaping the fire, particularly rattlesnakes, bear and wild boar, which might upset your otherwise steady escape plans.

  11. Wave bright colored clothing at any aircraft you see in the area. If airborne fire personnel notice you, they will try to send you help or give you instructions over loud speakers. Just don't get so focused on the sky that you lost touch with what is happening around you on the ground.

* * *

These survival tips are intended to be used along with your own good judgement. Not every tip will work in every possible situation. However, with some basic knowledge of how wildfires behave the rider or hiker can be better prepared to stay out of harm's way. Wildfires are usually survivable... provided one makes the correct decisions and doesn't make a bad situation worse.


The October, 1993 TrailBlazer published the first article in the "Survival Guide" series entitled "Coping with Wildfires." Since the magazine went to press, a series of significant wildfires struck Southern California. In addition, on Sunday, November 14, NBC aired a home video of a group of hunters whose camp was overrun by a forest fire in Montana.

By now, any of you with a television should be able to appreciate the potential intensity of wildfires, so the thrust of this epilogue is to explain why some made it out successfully and some did not.

The original article pointed out when overrun by fire, one of the safest places to be is in a vehicle as far away from heavy vegetation as possible. (Fire fighters are taught to seek refuge in their vehicles when trapped.) So, why did the four Los Angeles fire fighters get burned in their fire engine in the Altadena fire?

The three most critical factors were:

  1. The design of the fire engine, which had very large plates of glass in the windshield.

  2. The fact that since they were trying to fight the fire, not escape it, the location where they had to take cover was extremely treacherous; a narrow trail which cut across a steep slope.

  3. The fire happened to go have a major flare-up just as it reached the fire engine.

What appears to have happened was that the fire intensified just as it reached the fire engine. The large plates of windshield glass heated so rapidly that they shattered and the windshield openings were too large to keep covered. Even with the fire roaring into the cab of their fire engine, the fire fighters stayed put until the fire blew over as they would have instantly perished outside.

Readers should note that although the fire engine did burn up, as evidenced by television footage, it didn't really "burn to the ground" until after the fire passed and the fire fighters exited. Although significantly burned, the fire fighters were in good enough shape to hike out of the area to get medical help.

A rancher and his wife perished in the Topanga fire in a small pickup truck. I don't have complete information on this fatality, however it also occurred on a narrow trail and the pickup was parked next to a natural chimney where the fire would be most intense. It is unclear whether these elderly victims succumbed to intense radiant heat (windows were not covered up,) or were afraid or two weak to get out once the fire passed over and the truck started burning. Preliminary evidence, however, suggests that the pickup cab remained intact when the fire struck it.

Aside from these two instances, there are numerous reports of fire fighters and citizens who survived the fire by taking refuge in their vehicles. As recommended in the article, most of these found reasonably level locations with less vegetation surrounding them in which to take refuge.

On Sunday, November 14, "I Witness Video" aired some footage of a group of hunters whose camp was unexpectedly overrun by a nighttime wildfire in Montana. The weather was described as "cold", so nobody thought to be on the alert for fire.

The hunters' camp was in a level meadow. It consisted of a bus, several campers and RVs, and numerous horse trailers. There was a small stream nearby and the vegetation in the immediate camp area was short and fairly lush. The fire was observed to be very intense, and it involved an area which had the only road out of the camp, so the hunting party was trapped.

As the fire approached, some of the hunters decided to try to outrun the fire through the darkness on horseback. The remaining hunters took refuge in the camp.

Those who rode out on horseback did survive, although this was due more to good fortune than good sense. Those in camp, with less than ten minutes before the fire was to hit them, organized a survival plan and worked together to save themselves, their horses and all of their possessions.

The fire was throwing thousands of flying brands and embers (similar to the Southern California fires,) so the decision was made to let the horses go. The hunters then moved their vehicles into a circle in a relatively clear area, close to the creek. They formed a circle similar to the old wagon trains in western movies.

Next, the hunters packed away all combustible materials which would be likely to catch fire, and took all of their towels, blankets, etc. and soaked them in the creek.

Using the circle of vehicles to protect them from the intense heat, the hunters took cover, using the wet towels and blankets to smother spot fires which started up in their "safe" area. As soon as the body of the forest fire passed over, they got up and proceeded to smother the remaining small fires in and around their camp.

The vehicles abandoned by the hunters who rode out were lost, but those which could be moved into a defensible circle were saved, along with their contents. After several hours, the weary hunters felt confident that all of the spot fires in camp were thoroughly extinguished, and so being exhausted, they went to sleep.

Whey they awoke the next morning, they were surprised to see some slightly singed horses standing by their usual tie spots waiting for breakfast. (It was not clear if all the horses were recovered, however it was not indicated that any were lost.)

The tactics employed to reorganize and protect the camp were sound. Whether to release horses or not is a judgement call.

Horses do have good survival instincts, however they can injure themselves trying to respond to their instinctive drives. On the other hand, one's ability to cope with a fire problem in camp could be severely compromised by confined, panicked horses and by the time one decides that holding on to the horses is a bad idea, the fire may be too close for the horses to have decent chances for survival.

Regardless of the situation, having some concept of what fires can do and preplanning, even informally, what you would do if you encounter a threatening fire will provide you with a distinct advantage if you are even unlucky enough to be in such a situation.

Our thanks to TrailBlazer Magazine for permission to post this series on our web page.
You can visit the TrailBlazer website at www.horsetrails.com.

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