After I did my blog post on travelling to Yosemite in July, I felt it was critical to do a travel guide on California during wildfire season. I left out some stories in my post about the Mariposa fire and I will be sharing them here. In the last five years, wildfire season has been starting in California as early as May and going as late as November. The worst time is generally June-August and it doesn’t look like it’s going to get better.

And look, I don’t care what you think the reasons for the wildfires are. If you are travelling to California during the times I mentioned, you HAVE to contingency plans for wildfires! It’s gone from California Dreaming to California Burning and it’s important to respect that.

Things to Pack:

  • Water cooler
  • Lots of water bottles
  • N95 masks
  • Moisturizing eye drops
  • Some dishtowels or other towels
  • A working cell phone and its charger

Here’s the why behind each of these. You are going to become sweaty, dehydrated and congested if you are anywhere close to a wildfire. If your accommodation offers free ice (I know Motel 6 does), double what you would normally need before you start travelling for the day. If you need to buy ice, follow the same rule. Take advantage of any way to prolong the ice melt. Fill up all your water bottles before you start your day as well. Lots of liquid might not completely stop you from feeling sweaty, dehydrated or congested, but it takes the edge off. Additionally, dip the small towels in the water to keep your face cool and if you want to breathe through them. Keep your eyes hydrated with eyedrops too!

Pack some N95 masks with you before you leave and make sure you know how to fit them properly. I can’t say how close you have to be to a wildfire to wear them. California has had wildfires a few hundred miles away from the Bay Area, but I still had to wear an N95. Extinguishing a wildfire releases a lot of smoke, and smoke travels wherever the wind goes. Or not. Another thing that’s important is smoke is not just from the trees burning. More chemicals are being released with properties burning. Therefore, it’s critical to protect your lungs. This bears repeating: You need a working, charged cell phone to stay on top of real-time updates if you are near a danger zone.

I will keep referring to this section throughout the post.

Driving Hacks:

Before you start driving, put your ice and water bottles in the coolest place in the cabin. Do NOT put them in the trunk! You’re going to need them! Additionally, check your cell phone for updates on road closures. If you run into firefighters who are off duty, ask them for any updates too. They don’t bite and they can help you plan for redirecting your route.

If you are driving in a smoky area, you have to turn your air-conditioning off. That’s easier said than done because, in California, anything that ends in “Valley” (Central Valley, Yosemite Valley) is going to have high temperatures. However, if you don’t turn your AC off, you will get smoke in the car and you can’t open your windows either to let the smoke out. The cabin can become a deathtrap quickly. If you have to turn the AC off, use the water and ice by any means necessary to stay cool.

If you are the driver, keep your eyes hydrated (just pull over before you put eyedrops in lol). I have had times when my eyes have run so much from the smoke, that it’s hard to see properly. Additionally, if smoke is obscuring your visibility, drive slower and do what you would do if you were driving at night in an unfamiliar area. Follow any driving directions from emergency services.

Should I Change My Travel Plans?:

Here’s why I don’t have a straight answer to this question. Even if you are planning on rerouting your trip to get away from the worst of the fire, you might still be affected by the smoke. In November 2018, the Camp Fire happened in Paradise California and there was another fire in Southern California at the same time. Since my university cancelled classes due to the Air Quality Index (AQI) being over 180, we thought of renting a car and driving to where the air quality was better. When we looked carefully, we realized that there was no point because we would have to drive hundreds of miles to get someplace with a better AQI.

Additionally, roads are highly likely to be clogged with people driving to less dangerous areas. Emergency services will redirect traffic to prioritize easy access to evacuees. I remember when the Camp Fire happened and I took Lyft home from university. At the best of times, it only took half an hour to drive from home to my university. This time, it took an hour and a half.

My answer to this question would be to research your options and check the AQI and traffic conditions along any routes you might use.

PLEASE DON’T DO THIS!!:

I’m going to whip a dead horse here. PLEASE DO NOT BE CARELESS WITH FLAMMABLE OBJECTS!!! Our terrain has become more sensitive to wildfires due to extreme drought for over a decade, and 70+ years of debris piling up from being too careful about fighting fires! Even though controlled burning is taking place in some places (I saw it outside Yosemite when I went there in December), the terrain might become too sensitive to fires.

If you are camping, or if you have flammable objects with you, follow local instructions. Signs in areas are changed daily to indicate wildfire risk. If you aren’t sure about using flammable objects in a certain area, ask a park ranger, or a local firefighter for advice. Recommendations change on a daily basis during fire season, so if you can use flammable objects one day, it doesn’t mean you can use them another day. A few years ago, we went camping in Northern California. We made sure we knew the campground fire rules and extinguished it properly before sleeping.

You can be fined for improper use of fire. One of the wildfires in 2020 was due to using explosives at a gender reveal party. The people responsible got one heck of a hefty fine! You can guarantee they will be paying it off for the rest of their lives!

Keep in Mind What It’s Really Like for Californians:

Here are some facts about wildfires in California. It doesn’t matter whether you are living in a city or the country, in a poor area or a rich area. We have all been affected by wildfires in one way or another. The first time Napa Valley had a wildfire, some people didn’t donate for wildfire relief because it’s a rich area. That shouldn’t have anything to do with it. Napa was affected by a natural disaster. Period. I saw both Mariposa and Paradise several months after the fires happened. It was nice to see Mariposa doing well. They get a lot of tourists going to Yosemite to boost their economy. Paradise looked like it had a long way to go to recover. Fire insurance doesn’t even begin to cover the damage from wildfires. Economics plays a big role and fires are already starting to affect housing prices in California.

I don’t know a single Californian who doesn’t hate Pacific Gas and Electric (PG&E) for having equipment failures causing sparks in vulnerable areas. One time, only a few sparks were needed to make an area go up like an oil spill fire! PG&E has been blatantly responsible for too many fires that could have been prevented! Lawsuits are still happening, but PG&E is using loopholes to avoid accountability.

Local Responses vs State Responses:

Here’s what I saw in Merced during the Mariposa fire was happening. The welcome sign outside our motel said evacuees with pets were allowed to stay. That warmed my heart! Before we turned back on Highway 140, we saw so many signs thanking the firefighters. On our last night in Merced, we were eating at the Black Bear Diner and an entire unit of the California Fire Department was eating there. No one cared that service was slower that night.

I look back on that and think how local responses to these wildfires are so much better than the state government. The state’s response to extreme wildfires can be summed up in seven letters: fuck all! Experts knew years ago that the drought was increasing wildfire risk, but the state had no preparations in place for annual once-in-a-lifetime wildfires that said experts were saying would happen!

In 2020, I saw the worst fire of all. People ask me if it’s true that the sky turned red. That answer is a resounding YES! I am so pissed off with the state government being stuck in the definition of insanity when it came to wildfire responses. I was hoping the red sky would be the California equivalent of The Great Stink of London, and the state would finally change things. Lately, I have heard of changes such as banning the sale of gas-powered cars by 2030 and California running for an hour on 100% renewable energy. I’m still skeptical. It doesn’t seem urgent enough. No, we can’t control the entire increase in global temperature that has led to drought and wildfires. That doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do our part to decrease it though.

Be Respectful:

I would see evacuees in the motel lobby when I went down to get ice. They would be talking about when they might be able to go home, or what the damage was. One time, I saw a dog that would have rushed me if there wasn’t a glass door separating me and it. I know a lot of the dogs evacuated were probably farm dogs, and they have different manners than city dogs. Normally, I would pet any dog I see and talk to the owners, but this time I decided not to do so.

Additionally, I would say hi to people around the motel. I had a rule that if they didn’t say hi back to me, I wouldn’t take it personally. I didn’t know what they have been through but I hoped a kind “Hello” would make them feel a little better. Another rule I had was if I got in a conversation with an evacuee, I wouldn’t complain about the state’s response to the fire unless they wanted to as well. If they were a climate change denier, I would let it slide because it was time for kindness, not disagreement. I was raised to be Green before it was cool. I can get passionate about it. However, there are times when I won’t argue with people about it and this is one of them.

Use your own good judgement when talking to Californians about wildfires. Just don’t come off as arrogant or uninformed. It’s a sensitive topic, so be just as sensitive.

The Most Important Thing:

I take it you noticed that sometimes I don’t give you definite answers, so I tell you what I know. How you deal with natural disasters depends on your ability to be adaptable. You have to take whatever information you currently have and make decisions accordingly. Charles Darwin said that the most adaptable animals and people survive and he’s on point when it comes to disasters! We can be even more adaptable in this age of technology because we have a mini-computer in our pockets and can get real-time updates in emergencies.

I will say this about cell phones though. Figure out the most trusted apps and websites and use them in a wildfire situation. It can mean the difference between life and death. Usually, I would say local government sources of a wildfire zone are the most accurate. They have a vested interest in keeping their community safe. I have seen non-local websites that gave me the wrong AQI for my area! I didn’t panic though. It’s incredibly easy to find another site.

So that’s it for my California Wildfire Travel Guide. Feel free to ask any questions or leave any comments!

About Author

I am a Third Culture Kid who has lived in five different countries: πŸ‡¨πŸ‡­πŸ‡«πŸ‡·πŸ‡ΊπŸ‡ΈπŸ‡¬πŸ‡§πŸ‡¨πŸ‡¦/πŸ‡―πŸ‡²πŸ‡·πŸ‡Ί. I moved to Canada in October 2020 and I started blogging about adjusting to life here. Follow my blog for tips on expat life, stories about my life as a Third Culture Kid, features on where I have lived, and world news.

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20 Comments

  1. Wildfires are definitely becoming more common out west so it’s always good to have a back-up plan and to come prepared to deal with the smoke. I’ve never driven through or near a β€œdanger zone”, so I had no idea about many of these things, including about the air conditioning.

    1. The air conditioning part was a rude awakening. But the good thing is you realize it really fast before the car turns into a death trap. Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

  2. Great advice, I haven’t been as close to wildfires as you but they’re happening in BC and Alberta with more frequency too so good to be prepared.

    1. I would say that BC and Alberta are at the point California was a few years ago when people were just starting to catch on that this was going to happen every year. It hasn’t reached a tipping point here yet like it has in California with the red sky and ash falling from the sky, but I’m hoping it doesn’t happen. Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

  3. I’ve seen a few post wild fire effects and driving around wild fires and you’re so right that the smoke and effects reach far beyond the boards of the fire itself. It’s intense. Headaches for days. Poor California is all I kelt thinking. Great info to share.

  4. Good tips for wildfires anywhere. It is no fun to be anywhere near the smoke or fire and we have driven in close proximity to wildfires in BC several times and had to detour for road closures. Allan

    1. Yeah, that’s true. I recall your posts about BC being on fire. Seems like a lot of people need to be realistic on the West Coast that the environment is in a dire situation. Hope you had a nice Canada Day yesterday and thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

  5. Claire, thanks for this informative and insightful post on a situation that concerns all of us who live in California. When my sons and I first arrived in the USA in October 2003, it was a warm and beautiful day in the San Fernando Valley where my mother lived at the time. From the window of her condo, we could see smoke clouds in the distance from a wildfire raging in the region. On her advice to be ready to evacuate at a moment’s notice, I never unpacked our suitcases. A month later, we moved to West Los Angeles not far from the Pacific Coast. Wildfires in Los Angeles County have grown over the years. In 2017, smoke from the Skirball Fire in the upscale Bel Air neighborhood of Los Angeles engulfed our apartment complex like a fog, making it unsafe to spend time outdoors. The sun became a glowing orange ball in the daytime sky.

    1. Thanks for sharing your experiences in SoCal with wildfires. I have noticed that one doesn’t always get firsthand perspectives of wildfires in SoCal up in NorCal unless they know people in SoCal. You arrived in California a decade before I did and it only took a few years after I arrived to notice that experts were right about wildfires being more frequent. Not that I had any doubts. I know now it’s got to the point that if you travel anywhere in California you have to plan for wildfires. I wonder how soon people will be doing travel guides for other areas that are getting more natural disasters. Thanks for commenting πŸ™‚

    1. Yeah. I feel like I didn’t want to do this travel guide, but I feel like it’s not an option to not plan for natural disasters anymore while travelling in a hot spot for them

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