If you’ve been following the news lately, you may know that this summer is one of the worst wildfire seasons in the Western United States in years. Just a few days ago, wildfires forced the closure of Yosemite National Park for the first time in nearly three decades. A major wildfire just started near the Northern California city of Redding, already out historic buildings, many homes, and causing some tragic loss of life. Dozens of wildfires rage all over California and the Pacific Northwest.
We just returned from a road trip up Interstate 5 through Redding into Northern California and into Southern and Central Oregon, passing many wildfires along our route. Smoke from the fires obscured our views of Mount Shasta and even more so of Crater Lake. Driving through Redding yesterday on our way home was beyond disheartening. We saw a city eerily dark from smoke in what should have been mid-day sunshine.
We also happen to have a trip booked for this weekend to Yosemite National Park that is very much in question. The park is currently not slated to reopen until Friday at 4 pm – the first day of our reservation. (Editor’s note: the closure was indeed extended through the weekend, so our trip to Yosemite is officially canceled.)
With all of these experiences, as well as our proximity to last summer’s devastating Napa and Sonoma fires, it probably goes without saying that we have been watching the fire news carefully. We have learned a lot of travel lessons along the way with these experiences.
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 endemic, 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 them 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.
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 concessionaire, for example, is refunding all deposits for reservations made on dates when the park is closed. But other hotels near Yosemite that aren’t in areas as affected by smoke are not refunding deposits and are open for business. If you hoped to use those hotels as a base to explore the park, you are currently a bit out of luck.
And remember – 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 when it comes to something like our upcoming Yosemite reservation. We can always move our reservation and go in a later season. A visitor from 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.
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 this past week.
Go Back and Give Back
When the fires clear, try to go back and support affected regions when you can. They will need your tourist dollars to rebuild after the smoke clears then more than ever.