One of the best seasons to visit western US states like California, Oregon, and Washington is in the warm summer months. But this same time of year can sometimes be plagued by the major disruptions and even tragedies caused by wildfires.
The last several years have been filled with wildfire news during peak travel season. California’s wine country in Napa and Sonoma has been hit especially hard for multiple summers in recent history. Lake Tahoe had a truly devastating fire last summer.
When this post was originally published in 2018, the the Western United States was experiencing one of its worst wildfire seasons in years. Wildfires forced the closure of the entirety of Yosemite National Park for the first time in nearly three decades. Other major wildfires burned for months near the Northern California city of Redding and all over the Pacific Northwest. During this time, our family was taking a road trip up Interstate 5 into Northern California and into Southern and Central Oregon (in volcano country), passing many wildfires along our route. Smoke from the fires obscured our views of a number of sights such as Crater Lake.
Sadly the fires have already started in 2022. Just today, news broke of a fire near the south Wawona entrance of Yosemite National Park. It’s a sad reality that locals and travelers alike need to watch carefully.
With all of these experiences, as well as our proximity as locals to the many devastating Napa and Sonoma fires, it probably goes without saying that we have always watched wildfire news carefully. We have learned a lot of travel lessons along the way.
If you have travel plans in these or many other wildfire affected areas, what do you need to know? Here are some crucial tips for dealing with the risk of wildfires for travel – both to stay safe as well as to handle the indirect inconveniences that may arise for travelers many miles out of real harm’s way.
Tips for Travel During Wildfire Season
Follow the News
When you are on vacation, it’s very tempting to take the opportunity to check out. We all spend too much time on social media and following the often-depressing news of the day. Vacation is a chance to escape that.
If you are traveling to places where wildfires are common, however, don’t check out completely. You need to know whether the routes you are traveling are safe and accessible.
Even if you are out of real harm’s way, you may want to know whether the residual effects of wildfires will affect your travel experience. Often smoke and haze can obscure scenic views hundreds of miles away. Fires can also make the air quality unsafe for exertion outdoors like hiking.
We personally found the most up to date information on social media from local news affiliates and National Parks for the destinations to which we traveled. Obviously, the best sources of information will vary depending on where you are going. That said, try to follow some locally relevant news sources and destination sites before your trip so you are more likely to be in the know.
Let Family Know Where you Will Be
If you are traveling to places where wildfires are a regular threat, share your itinerary with family back home. That way, they can reach you in an emergency or simply know that you are out of harm’s way if you can’t be reached. A lot of places where wildfires are likely to burn are not within easy cell phone range. You don’t want friends and family fearing the worst when you are simply off the grid somewhere else.
Don’t Question the Experts
If you are told not to go somewhere or do something by local authorities or experts due to wildfires, heed their warnings. Wildfires are serious business that cause loss of life even to professionals trained to fight them. I’ve seen so many travelers ignore regular warnings in places like national parks and take stupid risks. Sometimes the results are life-altering. No vacation experience is worth the loss of your life, so take fire news seriously. If you do have to evacuate an area, consider getting out early as possible when you have advance warning to avoid being stuck in traffic with other evacuees.
Know About Cancellation Policies & Insurance Options
Since I travel with kids who can often throw a curveball into travel plans in unexpected ways, I always pay attention to cancellation policies. Doing so is even more important when you are deciding whether to take a trip to an area that might be affected by wildfires. Knowing what cancellation deadlines are before your trip can help you make the call about whether to take the trip at all.
Many hotels are more than generous with exceptions when natural disasters strike. Yosemite’s concessioner, for example, refunded all deposits for reservations made on dates when the park was closed several years ago. But other hotels near Yosemite that weren’t in areas as affected by smoke didn’t always refund deposits and remained open for business. Travelers who hoped to use those hotels as a base to explore the park were often a bit out of luck if a last minute cancellation was needed.
The bottom line is that your miles may vary when it comes to being able to cancel last minute when fires strike. If you really are making a deposit on a trip that you can’t afford to lose, consider travel insurance.
Have a Backup Plan
If wildfires look likely to affect your vacation, have a Plan B if at all possible. Since my family lives in Northern California, we are obviously pretty flexible for a lot of our driving distance travels. We can always move reservations and go in a later season. A visitor from across the country or overseas might not have that luxury at the moment.
That said, there are plenty of other places to travel to. Salvage your vacation and go somewhere else on your bucket list instead. I had a friend displaced by the Yosemite fires a few years ago who pivoted and went to Sequoia and Kings Canyon National Parks instead. Her family ultimately had a glorious time at a new destination they otherwise might not have considered.
Keep It in Perspective
While it is surely frustrating to miss out on a magnificent view or lose a night’s deposit on a vacation when wildfires get in the way, it is vital to keep your losses in perspective. Wildfires are devastating to the real people who live in the places you are visiting. Many will lose their homes, their business may be decimated for months and years to come, and some will lose their lives.
Count your blessings that all you are losing is a day of vacation. I know I certainly am after seeing the devastation first hand in our travels and close to home.
Go Back and Give Back
When the fires clear, try to go back and support affected regions when you can – particularly small businesses that may not be as well insured or capitalized. They will need your tourist dollars to rebuild after the smoke clears more than ever. Our family has made it a priority to visit Napa and Sonoma Wine Country regularly the last few years as a result of the damage to tourism caused by fire damage there. Every little bit helps!
Have your travels been derailed by wildfires? Share your experiences and tips in the comments.