Western US Fire Smoke Conditions and Air Quality Info For Hikers

by John Soares on August 24, 2015

Want to go hiking or backpacking in your favorite wilderness, national park, or state park in the western United States, but you’re not sure of the smoke conditions and the air quality because of all those summer wildfires?

This post will help. I list nearly two dozen ways you can find out what’s happening in your chosen hiking area.

Northern California's Marble Mountain Wilderness enshrouded in wildfire smoke. Photo by Nick Epps.

Northern California’s Marble Mountain Wilderness enshrouded in wildfire smoke. Photo by Nick Epps.

Right now I’m researching new editions of my two hiking guidebooks on northern California and all the smoke in the mountains and valleys is playing hell with my hiking schedule. I want clear skies both so I can take good panoramic pictures and also so I can breathe clean air while I’m humping up the trails.

Smoke Factors

Many factors determine whether any particular place is smoky at any given moment:

Location and size of wildfires. This is crucial, of course. In the worst of the fire season, usually in August and September, there can be a dozen or more fires burning within a couple hundred miles of where you want to hike, and they can range from relatively small blazes to major conflagrations that stretch across 50 square miles or more.

Wind direction. This is another very important factor. If you are directly downwind of a fire, you’re going to get the smoke from it.

Atmospheric conditions. These can affect how well air mixes with elevation. For example, an inversion can trap smoke in valleys, leaving higher elevations relatively clear.

Local geographic features. I live in Ashland in southern Oregon’s Rogue Valley, which is surrounded by peaks stretching up to 8,000 feet, especially in the southern end of the valley where Ashland is located. Unfortunately, smoke frequently gets trapped and can stay for days, especially when the winds are light. However, there are times when a slight shift in the wind brings clear air while thick haze coats the other side of the valley, and sometimes just the opposite happens.

Conditions can change quickly. Keep this in mind! Just because Lake Tahoe has good visibility at 9 a.m. when you leave San Francisco, it can have visibility of just a few miles or less by the time you actually get to a trailhead. Use your smartphone or tablet to keep track of the latest info.

Sometimes there’s smoke nearly everywhere. When much of the West is aflame, smoke from the different fires gets pushed 200 miles in one direction, and then a day later it can get pushed 100 miles in yet another direction, leading to increased haze in just about every location.

Finding Smoke/Air Quality Information

I describe many ways to find out what you need to know. Remember that Google is your friend when it comes to finding specific websites for where you are. Search for terms like: smoke conditions, air quality, and the name of the state or region where you want to explore.

Fire Information and Maps

Inciweb. Enter the state in the upper right corner.

Calfire. Many states have similar agencies.

Weather Reports with Wind and Smoke Conditions

Keep in mind that a good weather report can help you predict what will happen to smoke in the future. For example, I do a lot of hiking in the Trinity Alps, Russian Wilderness, and Mount Shasta area of far northern California. If fires are mostly to the south and north of this area, and the area will see a prolonged period of winds from the west, I can be fairly confident that the sky will be mostly clear since the winds will bring clean air from the Pacific Ocean. Often the detailed forecast discussion will have specific information about smoke conditions.

National Weather Service. This is my favorite source for weather predictions and data.

Weather Underground

The Weather Channel

Websites Specifically About Smoke Conditions

Many of these sites also provide fire information.

California

Oregon

Washington

Idaho

Montana

Wyoming

Colorado

Utah

Arizona

New Mexico

Websites Specifically About Air Quality

Web cams. Do a Google search for traffic cams near where you want to hike, which shows you conditions along major roads, and also search for specific cams on where you want to go, if it’s a major destination. For example, Lassen Volcanic National Park has cams that give near real-time pictures, as does Yosemite National Park.

Other Good Sources of Information

Ask your friends. If you’re on Facebook, ask your friends and see what you can find out. Of course, you could be really radical and actually call someone.

Ask the government agency. You can almost always get information from someone at a government agency if you call during business hours Monday through Friday. Some are even open on weekends, especially during the summer season.

Share Your Sources!

Are there other good sources of information on smoke and air quality that I missed? Let us know in the comments!

{ 10 comments… read them below or add one }

Jeff August 24, 2015 at 7:44 am

Nice aggregation John. Very informative.

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John Soares August 24, 2015 at 8:00 am

Thanks, Jeff. I’m sure there are other good resources out there that people will share.

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Jenny August 24, 2015 at 8:27 pm

Very useful info – certainly don’t want to miss out on prime hiking days, but never fun to show up at a smoky trailhead. Thanks for sharing!

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Gretchen Hunter August 25, 2015 at 6:20 am

Nice satellite view provided by University of Maryland’s smogblog: http://alg.umbc.edu/usaq/

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John Soares August 25, 2015 at 9:55 am

Thanks, Gretchen. Very useful!

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Mary marcina August 25, 2015 at 8:10 am

Your propensity for thorough research does it again! Thank you John!

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John Soares August 25, 2015 at 9:55 am

It was fun doing all the searching for the best sites. I’m sure there are good resources I missed.

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Joe October 4, 2015 at 6:22 pm

Your blogs is so informative John! I agree that we need to do some research before start our adventure. Thank you so much for all the useful resources

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Camp Host October 11, 2015 at 7:09 pm

I wish I’d seen this before my last hike into the Domeland Wilderness. The Rough Fire made breathing and visibility pretty tough. One way I try to stay on top of the air quality is to utilize the geo cameras that the park’s have installed on weather stations. These live cams are particularly useful in the southern Sierras.
Great blog!

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John Soares October 12, 2015 at 8:35 am

Good point: most national parks have web cameras that give up-to-the-minute info on smoke conditions.

Reply

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