Hikers, want to go hiking or backpacking in your favorite California wilderness, national forest, national park, or state park, but all those wildfires have you uncertain about smoke conditions and air quality?
This post — updated for the 2021 California wildfire season — will help. I list over two dozen ways you can find out what’s happening in your chosen California hiking area.
I have four recent hiking guidebooks out: 100 Classic Hikes: Northern California, fourth edition, Day Hiking: Mount Shasta, Lassen & Trinity Alps Regions, Hike the Parks: Redwood National & State Parks, and Urban Trails Sacramento. Wildfire smoke definitely hindered my research and made me alter my hiking schedule many times. I need 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. I also do a lot of dispersed camping in California (see my book Camp for Free: Dispersed Camping & Boondocking on America’s Public Lands), so smoke conditions are important for that also.
California Wildfire Smoke/Smokiness Factors
Many factors determine whether any particular place is smoky at any given moment due to wildfires:
Location and size of wildfires
This is crucial, of course. In the worst of the wildfire season, usually in August and September, there can be a dozen or more wildfires 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.
This is another very important factor. If you are directly downwind of a fire, you’re going to get the smoke from it.
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.
Wildfire and smoke 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 on wildfire smoke.
Here’s a picture I took of the northern Trinity Alps in July of 2018, from below Smith Lake near the Russian Wilderness. Southerly winds had blown smoke from large wildfires near Clear Lake north, creating lots of haze. But the next morning a wind shift had blown it all away.
Sometimes there’s smoke nearly everywhere: bad news for hikers
When much of the West is aflame, smoke from the different wildfires 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 smoke in just about every location.
Finding California 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 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.
I find that official Facebook pages for national forests, plus pages from other relevant official entities are often the best way to get the most up-to-date information on wildfires. In addition, unofficial Facebook groups often have good info, but also some info that can be wrong or is unverified.
Search Facebook for relevant pages and groups, and also look to see which pages and groups are shared by your friends.
California 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 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
National Weather Service. This is my favorite source for weather predictions and data, including wind direction and wind speed.
- Enter a town name or zip code that’s at or near where you want to hike.
- Pick a specific point that’s in your hiking area, which will give you a “point forecast.”
- Look at the relevant information in the summary for weather conditions for the next seven days.
- Go below the seven-day summary and click on “Hourly Weather Forecast.” Note that you can also go forward for multiple days to check further out in time.
- You have a lot of options here, but most important are wind speeds and, especially wind direction.
- Use one or more websites about smoke conditions listed below to see where smoke is and isn’t, and then combine that info with the predicted wind movements to predict where smoke — and clearer air — will be in relation to where you want to hike.
- Also look at the “Forecast Discussion” for the area. This gives more detail about the forecast, including the confidence the forecasters have about upcoming weather.
Weather Underground. Has 10-day long-range forecasts, but always take them with a grain of salt. The further out a weather forecast, the less likely it is to be correct.
The Weather Channel
The Weather Channel. Has 10-15 day long-range forecasts, but same concerns as just mentioned above.
Ventusky shows you current wind patterns for anywhere in the world.
For excellent discussion of short-term, medium-term, and long-term weather trends, go to the California Weather blog.
Websites Specifically About Smoke Conditions
Some of these sites also provide fire information.
Purple Air makes inexpensive air-quality sensors that give very frequent AQI updates. Most of California is well-covered. See the map here. I often look at Purple Air air-quality data and integrate that with predicted winds to help get an idea of where smoke and clearer air are moving.
NOAA/National Weather Service has a webpage that integrates data to show you smoke concentrations for anywhere in the United States.
Use the U.S. Forest Service BlueSky tool to get predictions of future smoke movement. Scroll down and click the map for the entire western United States, and then zoom in.
Track current smoke locations using the GOES-West satellite. Make sure you switch from the GOES-East satellite to the GOES-west satellite using the menu on the left.
See a variety of current webcams from across California at AlertWildfire.
AirNow.Gov: Current Air Quality AQI Measurements and AQI Forecasts. For California and the entire United States, see AirNow.gov. It has air quality numbers with color codes for health risks, and it provides forecasts air quality forecasts which help you choose where to hike.
And, for good measure, here are some sites for other western states:
Websites Specifically About California Air Quality
The AirNow site from federal Environmental Protection Agency allows you to get air quality data for any of the 50 states.
Here’s the AirNow California page.
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.
California Wildfire Apps
There are several apps out there; just be aware that they frequently will not be up-to-the-minute accurate. The Wildfire Info app by David Gross (Android, Apple) was recommended by a California firefighter. It allows you to switch between Calfire and Inciweb.
The premium version of the Gaia trail app also has information on wildfires and is updated daily.
California Wildfires: 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.
Twitter. Major fires often have a hashtag with frequent updates on Twitter, including satellite photos showing smoke plumes and information about road closures.
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.
Make Sure Your California Campfire Is Safe and Legal!
If you are in the backwoods, you need to follow safe practices for campfires. My post on California campfire permits for hikers and backpackers has info on safety practices, plus info how to obtain a campfire permit. (And also see my post about practical steps to reduce wildfire severity and damage)
I urge you to forego all campfires, even if they are allowed.
And If a Wildfire Is Near You?
Let’s hope it never happens, but if it does you need to take proper action to protect yourself and your hiking companions See my post on how hikers can survive a wildfire.
Consider Taking a Mask to Protect Against Wildfire Smoke
Wildfire smoke is, unfortunately, a common occurrence in summer in California and throughout the western United States. That’s why I often take a mask with me when I hike (and when I’m just walking around town if the smoke’s really bad).
There are many kinds of masks of varying quality and price. The one I use:
N95 Particulate Respirator Mask
These are usually available at hardware stores, department stores, and other retailers near you. However, during fire season, they can occasionally be hard to find.
And here’s the specific one I use; it’s inexpensive and works fairly well.
Share Your Sources!
Are there other good sources of information on smoke and air quality that I missed? Let me know in the comments!