Preventing and Reporting Wildfires in the Backcountry

By Sam Averett

It was another unseasonably warm September afternoon as Zack and I hiked up a long drainage into a beautiful section of famed Western mule deer habitat. It had been a wet spring, and record rainfall across much of the West had wreaked havoc on many communities, blowing out bridges, flooding towns, and destroying entire sections of highway. Consistent rain had continued into the early summer months, loading the mountains and low country alike with thick brush and tall grass. As summer progressed, the rain slacked and temperatures climbed steadily into the 90s through July and August, turning much of the Western U.S. into a tinderbox of dry, fine fuels.

As we rounded a corner in the trail, we paused to reference the map. Across the drainage and partially obscured by a low, sloping ridge, white smoke billowed into the bright blue sky. We exchanged glances.

“That’s not good,” Zack said, “I wouldn’t think any hunters would be having a fire out here right now.”

“I hope not,” I agreed.

Hunter looking at wildfire through binoculars


After a quick discussion, we elected to hike a short distance to get eyes on the source of the smoke. We rounded a bend into a meadow, and orange flames came into view. The fire was creeping through dry grass and brush on the far end of the meadow, occasionally climbing and torching the stunted firs surrounding the opening.

With no cell service, we reached out to several friends via InReach hoping they could report the fire to the proper authorities and get boots on the ground to keep it from spreading. An hour later, the unmistakable thundering of rotor blades came into earshot as a helicopter arrived on scene to scout the fire and take appropriate action. That evening in camp, we watched the helicopter shuttling buckets back and forth from a high mountain lake, dousing the fire.

The U.S. Forest Service reports that nine of every 10 wildfires are human-caused, and hunters are certainly a contributing group.

Hunters heading into the field when the fire danger is high should do several things to prevent a wildfire. First, check the burn restrictions for the area you’ll be hunting in. Are campfires allowed or is there a burn ban in effect? Most National Forests have current fire conditions available on their website. If not, a quick call to the area ranger station can provide the information necessary to know before you go. Check the weather for your area, too. Unpredictable mountain winds can turn a small campfire into an uncontrollable wildfire in minutes.

Late season in the mountains can be cold and brutal, and having a fire is great for warming up and as a moral boost. The early season can be a different story though, and warm daytime temperatures often make having a fire an unnecessary risk. If it is necessary to have a fire, the U.S. Forest Service advises hunters to ensure their campfires are fully extinguished before leaving the area. Clearing fuel and creating a sufficient fire ring in the immediate area around your fire can help to stop campfires from becoming wildfires. Kick away duff and debris until the fire sits on mineral soil, then stack rocks around the perimeter to keep coals in place. When finished, use water, and mix coals until they’re cold to the touch. Before using a portable stove like a Jetboil or MSR, be sure the area is clear of fine fuel like grass and use caution to prevent the stove from tipping over. If using a wood stove in a wall tent or tipi tent, attaching the spark arrester to the chimney pipe can keep hot embers from landing in dry grass and creating a start. Hunters should also use caution and avoid operating vehicles, ATVs, and UTVs in tall grass and sagebrush; hot exhaust pipes and dry grass have been the cause of many wildfires in recent years.

Hunter reporting wildfire with satellite communicator.


Reporting an existing wildfire can be accomplished in several ways. Most states and National Forests recommend calling 911 or the National Interagency Fire Center (NIFC) at 208) 387-5512. Many emergency dispatch centers in the U.S. now accept text-to-911 emergency messages. If you are in an area that offers text-to-911 reporting, make sure to include the latitude and longitude coordinates with your message. Texting detailed information to friends or family like Zack and I did is a great failsafe if you don’t know whether the dispatch center in the area accepts text-to-911.

The U.S. Forest Service asks members of the public to not attempt to extinguish wildfires by themselves and to use extreme caution when in an active fire area.  When reporting, it’s important to communicate the precise location of the fire to dispatchers and provide basic information about fire activity if possible. Landmarks and drainage names should also be provided. If hunting in an area without cell phone service, a satellite communicator is a critical piece of gear for personal safety and reporting other emergencies. These devices enable hunters to relay a message with GPS coordinates from anywhere on the planet, and they can come in very handy for reporting wildfires like Zack and I found. Size estimates of the fire can be helpful, but it is often difficult to assess this accurately. Overall, the more information hunters can provide, the quicker the responding agency will be to assess and allocate resources to stop the wildfire.

Taking the proper steps to avoid causing a wildfire can be relatively simple. If the situation doesn’t feel right, it probably isn’t. Zack and I were able to find and report the fire before it spread. A quick text from the InReach brought adequate resources to the fire immediately, and we were able to continue our hunt. That’s not always the case. September is often a busy month for wild land fire crews, and a careless campfire can easily turn thousands of forested acres into a charred jumble of burned timber and scorched earth. When it comes to campfires, caution is always the best practice.

This story first appeared in the 2023 Stone Glacier catalog. If you want a paper copy of the catalog delivered to your mailbox, consider joining our catalog mailing list.

Hunter building a fire in the snow.