SAN JOSE, Calif. — Andrew Schrock woke around midnight smelling smoke on a backpacking trip late last month in California’s far north.
“I heard what I thought was rain but was ashes on the tent,” said Schrock, 43.
Using a satellite-based device from the Klamath National Forest near the Oregon border, he texted family and friends back home to find out what was happening — but “no one was up.”
He’d had cell service a mile back along the iconic Pacific Crest Trail that stretches from Mexico to Canada, so he set out alone in the dark, got online, and discovered that the McKinney Fire — which as of last week had since grown to more than 60,000 acres, killed four people and required the rescue of 60 hikers from the California side of the trail — had ignited behind him to the south the previous afternoon.
He hurried back to the campsite to warn other backpackers. “We got up at 4:30 and booked it out of there,” he said.
Ask anyone who hikes in California’s mountains about wildfires and you’ll likely get an earful about canceled trips, detours, lung-burning smoke and, possibly, harrowing escapes. Backcountry travelers are increasingly finding themselves on the dangerous edge of a changing climate that is driving drought, parching forests, spreading tree-killing beetles and altering weather patterns. Add in heavy vegetation buildup from decades of fire suppression, and you have frequent, ferocious forest fires that scramble hikers’ best-laid plans and demand new tactics for staying safe.
Hikers used to complete the Pacific Crest Trail with what die-hards call “continuous footsteps,” but now, “it’s going to be really difficult if not impossible to hike every mile … from end to end in one go,” said Scott Wilkinson, a director at the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
Schrock, of Long Beach, flew from Ashland, Ore., to Fresno and then caught a bus to Yosemite to get back into the Sierra Nevada and finish his vacation covering more ground and enjoying the wilderness on his multi-year quest to complete the Pacific Crest Trail, he recalled while taking a snack break beside Lower Echo Lake near Lake Tahoe.
Dallan Clancy of Belmont, 68, finishing up a day hike 100 miles west of Sacramento at Carson Pass, said he had to cancel an overnight trip last September in the southern Sierra because the U.S. Forest Service shut access to all but one of California’s national forests over fire risks, including what the agency called “fire behavior that is beyond the norm of our experience and models such as large, quick runs in the night.” Clancy said he and four friends are aiming to do the trip this year, “unless it gets really bad.”
“We’ve always made note of escape routes, but on this trip, we actually planned our escape routes. We wanted to know the routes we could take to get out to a road,” said Jack Daro, a Southern California musician taking a break at Carson Pass during a backpacking trek to Yosemite National Park.
Daro, 69, and his companion Michele Weir, 63, almost canceled the trip over smoke from the Oak Fire west of Yosemite, still burning but nearly contained. “The planning is more nerve-wracking than the actual trip,” Daro said.
Hikers in years past “just went and did whatever you wanted to do wherever you wanted to go,” Wilkinson said. But 2020 marked a transformation, with the million-acre August Complex Fire, the Creek Fire northeast of Fresno that led to helicopter evacuations of hundreds of people including hikers on the John Muir Trail, and other massive blazes launching California into the age of mega-fires, Wilkinson said.
Nine of California’s 20 biggest fires since 1932 have occurred in the past three years, torching 4.1 million acres, according to Cal Fire. This year’s five biggest blazes have burned 116,000 acres, and “we’re just now getting into peak wildfire season,” Wilkinson said.
U.S. Forest Service spokeswoman Adrienne Freeman noted that fire can move much faster in today’s baked-crisp forests. “The window between OK and not OK,” Freeman said, “is becoming shorter and shorter.”
Backcountry journeyers who think seeing smoke but no flames means they’re fine may be mistaken, Wilkinson said. “Fire can move like a freight train, much faster than a person can run.”
Some hikers have dramatically changed the way they travel. Loetitia Saint-Jacques, 50, a Tahoe City veterinary technician, was on an overnight trip this month near South Lake Tahoe. Before the mega-fires, she and her companions would take long trips into deep wilderness. “We don’t go as remote now,” Saint-Jacques said. “Now it’s shorter trips. We do overnights, instead of five to eight days.”
Long-distance speed-hiker Ella Raff had multiple run-ins with wildfire and its fallout after embarking on the Pacific Crest Trail in June to walk from Mexico to Canada. Last month, the Washburn Fire in Yosemite shrouded her in smoke for two days. “I was just breathing heavy smoke 24/7. It’s not very fun,” said Raff, 29, of Portland, Ore. Farther north in California, traversing 85 miles of trail charred from last year’s nearly million-acre Dixie Fire left Raff covered in ash and dismayed by a “surreal” landscape with little animal life.
Soon after, she smelled smoke from the McKinney Fire. As she was nearing the Oregon border, authorities shut the trail ahead. More than 100 miles of the route remain closed, with the fire, which started July 29, almost contained as of last week. Raff made her way to Portland, then to Washington to hike the trail southward from Canada.
Changing jumping-off points, routes, destinations, or timing to cope with uncertainty about fires is now routine for hikers in California. The Caldor Fire, which ravaged 220,000 acres southwest of Lake Tahoe last year from August to October, forced Truckee artist Danae Anderson, 63, to cancel three backpacking trips. “Everything was too smoky up here,” said Anderson, hiking beside Lower Echo Lake. She went to Yosemite instead.
Risa Roseman, 58, and her daughter Zara, 20, out for a day hike near Donner Pass this month, said they’ve become more alert to the threat of fire, tracking weather, wind, fire and smoke conditions before and during a trip, and worrying about the chance of a blaze starting while they’re out. Three weeks ago, camped northwest of Lake Tahoe, they smelled wood smoke, climbed up high but couldn’t spot a source, and spent an uneasy night, said Roseman. The next morning they ran into backpackers who confessed they’d started an illegal campfire, Roseman said.
Reckless target shooting by a father and son allegedly caused the Caldor Fire. The inferno’s scar stretches nearly 50 miles southwest of Echo Lakes in a swath up to 15 miles wide, much of it a blackened wasteland of lifeless trees, some downed, some standing without greenery, granite on many boulders shattered in places by the intense heat. More than 80 miles of the Pacific Crest Trail were closed from the fire’s start last August until early this year. Hikers passing through such areas may find water scarce, and standing dead trees can pose a deadly toppling hazard, said Matt Rump, a trail stewardship staffer for the Pacific Crest Trail Association.
Crews take down the most dangerous trees, but because there are so many dead, and they provide important wildlife habitat, officials accept some risk to hikers, under the calculus that “if you get whacked, it’s your time,” said Cheryl Bailey, 73, a volunteer for the Tahoe Rim Trail Association, as she walked along the 2 1/2 miles of the rim trail that run through the Caldor scar and that she’s been helping rebuild.
Some hikers console themselves with fire’s importance to forest health, but many of today’s blazes burn so hot they kill trees accustomed to lower-intensity fires.
In the Echo Chalet store where Schrock, who fled the McKinney Fire, bought snacks, cashier Georgia Sprague, 22, chatted with the trekkers whose ebbs and flows depend on fires and smoke. Many expressed urgency over climate change.
“They feel a lot of a push to get out,” she said, “and see the world before it burns up.”