A dull, orange haze transforms the sky into something unfamiliar and otherworldly. The smell of smoke hangs heavy in the air, and a thick layer of ash covers the landscape.
What sounds like the intro to a dystopian sci-fi novel has become a daily reality for millions of Americans as deadly wildfires rage across the west coast. The fires broke out mid-August following exceptionally dry weather conditions, and they spread quickly.
In an update given on September 15, the US National Interagency Fire Center reported that at least 87 wildfires were burning in 11 different states. Most of the activity is centered in the Pacific Northwest—specifically in California, Oregon, Idaho, and Washington. So far the fires have collectively burned 4.7 million acres, leaving at least 35 people dead with dozens still missing.
Even distant towns, miles from the fires’ paths, are reeling from the effects. Poor air quality from the wildfire smoke makes it dangerous to be outside. This, combined with frequent power outages, has resulted in the closure of several state parks and the implementation of statewide burn bans.
It’s hard to wrap your mind around this level of destruction. You can’t help but wonder, how do forest fires get so out of control?
Wildfires can occur as a result of lightning paired with dry climates, drought, and heavy winds—but as it turns out, we can’t place 100% of the blame on Mother Nature.
According to Smithsonian, human activity caused 1.2 million out of 1.5 million wildfires from 1992 to 2012. This statistic carries a staggering cost—not just from property damage or the loss of national forests, but the cost of lives, as well.
It’s also a statistic that hits close to home when you realize that of those fires, 11% came from equipment use—including the use of off-road vehicles. This is the third cause of wildfires, only after debris burning and arson.
It’s probably not something you think about often, especially if you live in a region where wildfires rarely (if ever) occur. But ATV/UTV-caused fires do happen, and a 2017 Florida incident serves as a reminder of this. An ATV rollover ignited a patch of dead vegetation, resulting in a two-acre wildfire.
Despite the harrowing statistics, we’re not saying we all need to stop riding during the dry season. There are plenty of precautions you can take to ensure that you’re riding as safely as possible. And in light of the fires burning across the western half of the US, we want to highlight these.
A spark arrestor is a device that blocks hot particles from flying out of your exhaust. Most stock machines have them—or else the muffler is designed in a way that prevents particles from escaping—so if you’re running a stock muffler, you’re probably taken care of.
But if you’ve had some work done near the exhaust, you may need to install an aftermarket spark arrestor. They’re required by law at pretty much all parks—and for good reason. Those hot flying particles can have disastrous effects if they land on dry grass.
Burn bans exist for a reason. Climate factors, like drought and wind, can make riding through dry grass even more risky. Pay attention to current conditions and note any official warnings or restrictions. If conditions are iffy, maybe find a different ride spot for the time being.
And we shouldn’t have to say this, but you never know—if you’re riding or camping while a burn ban is in effect, don’t build a fire. And definitely don’t toss your cigarette butts aside. (Actually, you shouldn’t toss your butts even when a burn ban isn’t in effect.)
When campfires are safe and permissible, just be smart about it. We know that sometimes it’s nice to build a fire and cook a hot meal the ol’ fashioned way—and there’s nothing wrong with that! As long as you know what you’re doing.
First, make sure there are no burn bans or fire restrictions in place. You can look this up on your state’s official website.
Next, make sure you have a water source, bucket, and shovel nearby—just in case an accident should occur.
When you’re ready to build your fire, check out your surroundings. If a pre-made fire pit is nearby, use it! And if not, establish one far away from trees or bushes—at least 15 feet away, just to be safe. The best place to build a fire is on gravel or dry, bare dirt, so you may have to sweep some debris aside.
Finally, dig a hole about a foot into the ground and surround your pit with big rocks, to act as a firewall. Now you’re ready to start your fire.
Once you’re done, be sure to fully extinguish your flames. It takes awhile to put out a fire, so start extinguishing it about 20 minutes before you’d like to leave. Your campfire spot should be cold to the touch before walking away!
In case you haven’t noticed, engines get hot. Therefore, parking your ATV or UTV in a patch of tall grass during the dry season isn’t the best idea. It’s not common for fires to start this way, but it can definitely happen—remember what happened in Florida a few years ago?
Avoid potential fires by parking your machine away from any type of vegetation. Hard-packed dirt is going to be your safest bet.
We encourage you to perform regular maintenance on your machine for many reasons—to keep yourself safe and preserve your investment, to name a few. But avoiding accidental fires is another reason.
Part of maintaining your machine is keeping an eye out for leaks. Oil and transmission fluid are highly flammable, so if you’re leaking them all over dry grass during a drought, you’re just asking for trouble.
Always, always, always travel with a fire extinguisher. Even in cold or wet conditions, vehicle fires happen and we want you to be prepared when they do. Check out our side-by-side fire safety article to learn more about choosing the right fire extinguisher, and maybe pick up some other tips on what to do in case of an accidental fire.
Another good idea is to keep a shovel on hand when you ride, as recommended by the Bureau of Land Management. It can be used to beat down or shovel dirt on top of flames. It’s also helpful with putting campfires out because you can use the blade to break up any large embers.
As off-road enthusiasts, we spend a lot of our time outdoors. That means it’s our responsibility to take care of and preserve our surroundings. The current situation out west is a strong reminder of why this is so important.
Hopefully, with a few easy precautions, we can help protect our favorite ride spots. And in the meantime, our thoughts are with everyone affected by the wildfires in the western United States.
Here are some resources to help you stay up to date on current fire-related closures and restrictions:
The GPS Rundown—All You Need to Know about Off-Road Navigation
The Ultimate Emergency Vehicle: Side-by-Sides Are Saving Lives
No More Off-Roading at Oceano Dunes—Here’s What We Know
UTV and ATV Insurance—Do You Need to Be Covered?
Passing the Torch—Today’s Students Are the Face of Tomorrow’s Industry