Paddling in a wildfire

There’s an ongoing wildfire in a state forest in my area. The cause has been attributed to a lightning strike. It has now burned over 2,700 acres and is about 60% contained.

While following the fire reports on my scanner, I heard several references to locating kayakers on the river. One comment was their phones could not be pinged because of no cell service. I don’t know the details but they were finally located and escorted to safety by a conservation officer.

We’ve all read about what to do in the case of bad weather while paddling, but aside from always filing a float plan, what are your options in a wildfire?

Move down wind to a cleared road as soon as possible. We’ve been through four very intense fires in our area in the 21 years I’ve lived here. The intensity and devastation are amazing. The firestorms move very quickly and create their own winds, walls of flames can be 60 ft high or more. Sheltering in place is not a good idea, leave and try to get away as fast as you can downwind, and downhill. People have died trying to stay in a stream or river, if its very wide it might work, but the heat from the super heated air above the water in the wind can kill you .

I’m watching this. I have friends who have a cabin not far from where the fire is located. There is a good chance that they are up there. They paddle the Black in that area frequently but it isn’t likely that they were the ones rescued as they would be in a canoe. Dan has a good “bush head” so I’m not too worried about their safety.

I was up at their cabin in late February and we skied through the Blue Lakes area where the fire is. It will be interesting to see the damage.

Roads are a bit sparse in the area and, at best, are narrow gravel. Many you see on a map are barely two-tracks. The river is beautiful but small there. Fairly narrow and shallow with a fine selection of wood to enjoy. Not likely to be travelling fast.

Photos courtesy of the DNR:

The smoke coming from the center of the tree is impressive.

Most fires have fumigating smoke plumes with very low visibility.
A river can be your way out if you are ahead of the fire.
Find a takeout and leave the area.
Sheltering is your last resort. Find some rock outcrops next to the water.

Rock outcrops can be a bit hard to find in Michigan’s Lower peninsula and especially in the Pigeon River country where the fire is burning. I’m not sure if there are any closer than Ocqueoc Falls ~20 miles away.