Wildfire season in British Columbia can be massive, as seen in recent years, enveloping the province in a dark blanket of smoke, matting the air and giving the sun an unsettling blood orange colour. Wildfires can approach side roads and highways dangerously close; sometimes routes are restricted or have limited access, while others have poor sight.
Here are a few pointers and resources to assist you in travelling safely during wildfire season.
Slow down: Avoid the temptation to accelerate to your destination in order to “beat” the hazardous driving conditions created by surrounding forest fires. Alternatively, drive calmly, defensively, and cautiously. Given the limited visibility, keep your headlights and hazards lights on and keep an eye on the road for motorists who may have pulled over on the shoulder, as well as wildlife fleeing the slope. When vision is severely impeded, use your horn to warn approaching vehicles and animals or when driving around corners. Consider the possibility that your car will not start straight away or at all if you pull over for a pit stop. Make certain the car isn’t parked in a high-risk area. Instead of stopping near debris, brush, grass, trees, branches, or anything else that could catch fire, pull over near a river, stream, clearing, rocky area, or a road with plenty of concrete.
Roll up the windows: When driving through afflicted areas, your A/C and car cabin will be your best friends. Even if the skies appear to be clear, open windows can expose you to harmful smoke-filled air, which can harm your respiratory health, cause coughing, and make you drowsy. Close all exterior air vents and put your air conditioner to recirculation mode.
Avoid driving: The simplest option is also the most effective. If your journey demands driving on the afflicted highways this season, reconsider your plans. That may mean postponing your weekend trip to the Okanagan, but it’s better to be safe than sorry. Consider other modes of transportation if you don’t have an option (i.e. you’re fleeing the area for your own household’s protection). Last year, major airlines offered discounts on flights out of BC communities affected by wildfires; check with your favourite airline to see if they are doing the same this year.
Don’t throw cigarette butts out: In the dry conditions, the lit butts could start a fire. According to the National Fire Protection Association, cigarette-caused fires result in more than 1,000 civilian deaths, 3,000 critical injuries (many among firefighters), and $400 million in direct property damage each year. (Source: Albany Times Union, June 13, 2003)
Pack a Fire-Centric Emergency Kit: If you are driving through a particularly bad stretch, bring enough provisions for you and everyone in the vehicle. Allow plenty of time to reach your destination. While every vehicle should have an emergency kit in the trunk, driving during forest fire season may demand the inclusion of additional things. Your kit should include the following items in addition to the usual suspects (jumper cables, torch, food, etc.):
Smartphone charger that connects to the car so you may call for help if necessary.
Fire retardant blanket for each passenger.
Bottled water on hand (12-24 bottle case, contingent upon distance travelled).
Remove flammables like gas and oil cans, synthetic materials, and anything else that isn’t absolutely necessary.