Safety Tips for Burned Areas

Recent wildfires on the Willamette have increased likelihood of landslides, mudslides, flash floods, and debris flows. Hikers ALWAYS assume risks when entering trails in natural areas, but in burned areas those risks are greater. Your safety is in your hands!

Below are some tips for minimizing your exposure to natural hazards.

1. Learn the Risks

Risks in burned areas include falling trees and limbs, uneven/unstable ground full of holes from burned root systems, falling rocks, difficulty navigating through sections of trail, and possible landslides, debris flows, and flash floods. These are elevated during high winds, and during and after heavy rains and winter storms.

Practice the Four Steps for Safety to improve your awareness of natural hazards:  

  • LOOK UP for upland burned areas, snags, and exposed rocks that may fall. 
  • LOOK DOWN for debris from falling rocks, erosion – especially at road and trail edges, and ash pits (which may form from root pockets or stumps of burned trees). 
  • LOOK AROUND. Be situationally aware. Check the weather before you travel, including at higher elevations. Wind, rain, ice and snow can increase the risk of tree fall, rock fall, slides and other hazards. Flash floods and landslide risks are elevated below severely burned areas. 
  • LOOK BELOW the surface of standing water and moving water for floating logs, submerged trees and other debris, which can strike or entangle swimmers and boaters and damage other infrastructure. 

2. Know Your Route

Plan your hike and hike your plan!

Bring a quality map showing topography and natural features and a compass AND/OR a proper GPS unit that you know how to use. We don't recommend using your phone for navigation, as it is also your lifeline in an emergency and the batteries can run out when things don't go according to plan. Cross check your route against maps of the burned area so you know more about what to expect.

3. Check the Weather Before Heading Out

Weather is a major trigger for hazards. Check the 48-hour weather outlook before heading out. Here's what to watch for...

  • HIGH WIND knocks down standing dead trees ("snags") and branches ("widow-makers"), creating serious risks for those on hiking trails. If high or gusty winds are forecasted, DON’T GO INTO A BURNED AREA.
  • MAJOR STORMS including rain or snow can trigger flash floods, landslides, and debris flows. 

4. Phone a Friend

It's always better to hike with a partner! You should also leave a trip plan with family or friends that includes:

  • Location of your car. 
  • Planned hiking route, and any possible alternative.
  • Your expected return time.
  • Cell phone number and service provider. 

5. Sign up for Alerts

Keep up to date on emergency situations. Sign up for alerts below:

6. Pack the Essentials

Hikers should carry the 10 Essential Systemsnavigation, insulation, illumination, emergency shelter, first aid supplies, water, fire, repair kit and tools, nutrition, and a form of communication. 

7. Stay on Established Trails

Check our recreation pages to see if the trail you're planning to hike has been reopened. If trail signs are missing or downed trees and landslides make it hard to follow the trail, stick within your comfort level with navigating through natural areas. TURN BACK IF NECESSARY.

8. Look and Listen for Hazards

While in a burned area, SCAN for overhead hazards. LISTEN for falling trees, limbs, and rocks. WATCH OUT for stump holes and increased stream flows.

9. Know When to Turn Around

The trails and areas that remain closed are among the worst hit by the fire and include extreme post-fire hazards. RESPECT signs, barriers, and fences and turn around when you encounter closed areas. Please remember that entering closed areas creates risks for others, such as first responders. If wind picks up while in an area, LEAVE IMMEDIATELY.

10. Don't Panic if You Get Lost

If you realize you are lost and your surroundings are safe, STOP where you are. Refer to your map or GPS to attempt to figure out where you are. Do not leave a trail or road, because they increase your chance of being found. If you have cell phone reception, CALL 911. Have the dispatcher attempt to get a GPS location from your phone, which means staying on the phone at least 2-3 minutes. At this point, restrict your phone use to essential calls -- use text messages instead. Don't use your phone as a flashlight -- this will drain the battery, and you may need it later. Stay warm by adding layers from your pack. If you need to survive for several days, build a visible shelter and depending on the season and fire restrictions, you may need to build a fire.


Return to 2020 Wildfires Homepage.