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How to Survive

If you’re near a fast-advancing fire, ditch your pack and any synthetic material, such as Gore-Tex, which melts quickly. (Wool has a much higher burn point.) While scanning for escape routes, avoid resin-filled trees like fir and eucalyptus; superheated air from the fire will boil the trees’ sap, causing them to explode. Remember that fire moves more quickly uphill—hot gases rise and preheat its advance—and watch out for canyons and chutes, which can act like blast furnace chimneys. If the fire is close, find a creek, stream, or any marshy recess that you can jump into, and allow the blaze to pass overhead. (!!) If you can’t find a natural hideout, go to a field or an opening away from trees and create a “safety zone” around you, clearing away all burnable materials (a 15-to-20-foot circumference is ideal), then lie facedown and cover yourself with as much dirt as possible. “No matter how bad it is, keep your head down and your thoughts positive,” says Tony Petrilli, a former smokejumper and fire specialist at the U.S. Forest Service’s Missoula Technology & Development Center. Try to use the loose soil or a piece of clothing as a filter to avoid inhaling superheated air—often more deadly than the blaze itself. Consider stuffing an aluminum fire shelter in your pack if you’re traveling regularly in fire country. They’re pricey ($400) and add weight (six pounds), but the burnproof bivvy sack is mandatory for all federal wildland firefighters—who are also properly trained to deploy them—and might be worth hauling if it saves your skin.

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