Across the American west, wildfires are burning at a historic speed and scale, engulfing almost five million acres of land across three US states – California, Oregon and Washington – since early August.
That’s the situation that four hikers – Asha Karim, Jaymie Shearer, Lucas Wojciechowski and Stephen McKinley – found themselves in earlier this month – ambushed by California’s quick-moving Creek Fire and forced to outmanoeuvre the blaze, which was swallowing tens of thousands of acres.
‘What are the chances there’s already a new fire?’
One Saturday, Karim, Shearer, Wojciechowski and McKinley met at the Mammoth Trailhead in Sierra National Forest. The group had assembled for an eight-day camping trip through the Ansel Adams Wilderness to celebrate Karim’s birthday.When they set off that morning, California firefighters were already battling more than two dozen fires across the state. The hikers planned accordingly, plotting their route to favour areas with little or no smoke, far away from active blazes.
But they did not yet know about the Creek Fire, a massive wildfire that had ignited the night before and was now tearing through the Sierra National Forest.As they started in on the first five miles, the smoke began rolling in, becoming thicker, and the skies grew dark. The hikers assumed it was from the existing blazes.
“I was very sceptical to believe it was a new fire,” Wojciechowski said. “What are the chances that there’s already a new forest fire right next to us?”Black plumes of smoke grew closer. It became hard for them to breathe.
They decided to press on to an overlook, emerging out of the forest for a view of the west side of Sierra Nevada’s Ritter mountain range. By then, their route had disappeared into smoke. With three satellite phones between them, they texted friends, sending out their coordinates, trying to gather information.
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“We started figuring out what we’d need,” Karim said. “Is there a new active fire? Is it blocking the road? What is our escape route?”They sat there, at the edge of a growing pyrocumulus cloud – also known as a fire cloud – and listened to its rolling thunder.
They soon learned the fire was new, and were sent a single set of coordinate points which situated the blaze just two miles from the road that they needed to take out.We decided that it would not be wise to keep going around that dial, deeper into our hike,” Karim said. They decided to turn around and hike back to Karim’s 1994 Toyota RAV4 at Isberg trailhead.
The hike back was a blur, Shearer said.”It always felt like we were one step away from feeling panic and feeling fear,” she said. “I think if I would have been alone, and without friends or resources, I would have fallen into that.”Shearer, a trained wilderness guide, had her friends adopt a beloved hiker’s adage: slow is smooth and smooth is fast.
“You learn how to be slow and methodical even when there are scary things happening,” Wojciechowski said. “Slow is smooth and smooth is fast: if you move slowly, you’ll make the right decision and it will ultimately be faster.”
‘Who is driving here?’
They reached Karim’s car at around 4pm and tried to trace their way back out of the woods.
“By the time we got to the car, we believed that there was still some time for us to get out,” she said.The main road out crossed a collapsed bridge, so they set off on a detour.”This convoy of cars sped at us, honking at us, flashing high beams at us, telling us to go the other way, but no one would stop to talk to us,” Karim said. “We don’t know what’s ahead, but they do, and they’re not stopping.”