Why Trails Matter: Resilience to Wildfire

Trails connect suburban and rural communities to wild places, and they can play an important role in landscape resilience, as wildfire becomes more frequent in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) where homes are increasingly being built.

by American Trails Staff

With the smoke from the wildfires in Canada affecting folks in the Midwest all the way to New York this summer, wildfire is no longer only a “Western” issue. Record-setting heat has made wildfires more likely and exacerbated their impact, from the backcountry to urban areas. There is no denying that extreme weather events and wildfire smoke can affect everyone. Trails connect suburban and rural communities to wild places, and they can play an important role in landscape resilience, as wildfire becomes more frequent in the wildland-urban interface (WUI) where homes are increasingly being built. A trail system can be part of a wildfire management strategy and may serve as emergency egress routes before or during a fire. After the fire, trails in burnt-over landscapes may help visitors learn about fire recovery, and the impact of wildfire on watershed health. This article is intended to help you as a trail manager, designer, or trail steward think about wildfire and anticipate its effects.

Wildfire and landscape resilience on public lands

What do we mean by resilience? Trails can help a landscape resist, reduce, and absorb the impact of extreme weather and natural disasters. According to the US Department of Transportation Federal Highway Administration, in the publication Trails and Resilience: Review of the Role of Trails in Climate Resilience and Emergency Response, The term ‘‘resilience’’, with respect to a project, means a project with the ability to anticipate, prepare for, or adapt to conditions or withstand, respond to, or recover rapidly from disruptions, including the ability—

(A)(i) to resist hazards or withstand impacts from weather events and natural disasters; or

(ii) to reduce the magnitude or duration of impacts of a disruptive weather event or natural disaster on a project; and

(B) to have the absorptive capacity, adaptive capacity, and recoverability to decrease project vulnerability to weather events or other natural disasters.

The US Forest Service has a goal of re-creating the fire-adapted landscape once characteristic of Western forests and grasslands. This goal is to be met through reducing the fire fuel load by thinning low-elevation forests down to 60 trees per acre, applying prescribed fire and allowing the effect of some "unplanned ignitions" aka wildfire.

The Bureau of Land Management is exploring the idea of conservation leasing, apparently to put conservation on an equal footing with other sorts of leases. This approach seems to fit with a larger trend of agencies finding ways to work with local partners to help them with public land management. Once the BLM makes a decision on the proposed Public Lands Rule in December 2023, this could potentially be good news for nonprofit trails organizations who are interested in doing habitat restoration or mitigation projects.

Lessons learned

Devastating wildfires in California have made the national news, and trails managers have learned some important lessons that could be applied anywhere. American Trails interviewed Travis Menne, the Community Projects Manager for the city of Redding, in 2018 after the devastating Carr Fire which caused a temporary closure of 15 miles of trail.

“Fireworthiness should be a factor in future decision-making regarding trail construction. Natural trails in the area have melted culverts, but in some cases, these can be converted into rock armored low-water crossings. All of our wood wayfinding signs were completely lost, having a good inventory of what went where before the incident would have been really helpful. Trails often provide access to remote areas and, depending on the width, can be crucial in fire suppression efforts. In fact, one of our natural surface trails acted as a fire break and quite possibly saved several homes. I think that speaks a lot to the value of them in urban and rural areas.”

In a follow up conversation with Mr. Menne for this article, he mentioned that the 14 bridges that were damaged or destroyed in the Redding trail system have all been replaced with fireproof bridges. Although the cost is higher than for wooden bridges, the new ones will last longer and are more sustainable for this reason. Also, he was able to find a fire-resistant Fiberglas bridge that could be flown in by helicopter to a more remote location. The USDA Forest Service has a Sustainable Trail Bridge Design document that is a helpful resource.

Eric Lueder of the Post Wildfire OHV Recovery Alliance (PWORA) spoke about the need for volunteer organizations to build relationships with public land managers and the difficulty recruiting and training enough volunteers to help with fire recovery efforts. "It takes real passion to do this work!" PWORA has been working in the Eldorado National Forest in California after the Caldor Fire, where trails were blown out during firefighting efforts. Asked whether trails could be made more fire-resilient, Eric responded that he would recommend proactive removal of hazard trees near the trail, and clearing buffer areas of trees. For anyone thinking of starting a similar organization, he recommends keeping in mind the key role of a volunteer coordinator, and making a business plan so that your organization can grow beyond a volunteer-only grant-funded approach within a few years.

For communities in the Wildland Urban Interface with paved bike trails, these may accommodate emergency vehicles such as fire trucks, which can be an important part of fire response. Keep in mind the designer needs to consider the width and weight-bearing capacity of the trail as well as using collapsible or removable bollards if bollards are used. Be sure to refer to the Manual on Uniform Traffic Control Devices if you are designing a bicycle trail or trail that might utilize bollards. Poorly designed trails can cause deadly accidents.

photo credit: Malachi Brooks on Unsplash
Plumes from the Calwood Fire (2020) Jamestown, Colorado

Plumes from the Calwood Fire (2020) Jamestown, Colorado

Tips for hitting the trail during wildfire season:

1. Stay found and stay in touch.

  • Before you go, give a friend or family member a copy of your itinerary, when to expect you back, and update them if this changes.
  • Reach out to the local agency managing the land to find out if there are any road or trail closures or burn bans in effect.
  • Register at the trailhead if this is an option, so your location is known.

2. Be prepared and flexible.

  • Check the weather, take a look at the air quality through AirNow, and locations of wildfires through InciWeb and the National Interagency Coordination Center. This agency has an online map with established and emerging fires across North America, and publishes a National Significant Wildland Fire Potential Outlook on the 1st of every month.
  • Make sure your trip includes more than one route in and out of the area you are visiting.
  • If the National Weather Service issues a "red flag warning" meaning high temperatures, low humidity and strong winds create an increased risk of fire in your area, reconsider going into the back country.

3. Gear up and stay safe.

  • Always bring the 10 essentials, one of which is a first-aid kit, any other medications you may need including an asthma inhaler, and a signal mirror.
  • Be careful of driving or parking an ATV or car in tall dry vegetation such as grass. The underside of the vehicle may be hot enough to start a fire.
  • Consider buying a radio that can receive NOAA Weather Radio alerts. If you will be out of cell phone range you may want to carry a Personal Locator Beacon or Satellite Messenger.
  • Even if there are no fire restrictions, use a portable stove and don't use a campfire during high fire danger. Make sure the area where you are cooking is free of grass, dry brush, and anything flammable.
  • Pay attention to changes in the weather. Thunderstorms mean lightning and this can trigger wildfire. Consider turning around and heading back if a storm is brewing.
  • It hardly needs to be said, but if you do make a campfire, make sure it is completely extinguished and cold to the touch before leaving the area.
  • Closed-toe boots with good traction and a thick sole are the most practical choice in fire country!

4. If there's smoke there's fire.

Once you have embarked on your trip, if you notice smoke, keep in mind these tips:

  • Generalized haze may be from a distant wildfire but could be dangerous to breathe. Consider turning around and heading back to the trailhead if the sky is yellowish or orange.
  • If you see smoke or flames, take note of the location and report it. Call the National Interagency Fire Center or 911.
  • White smoke often indicates a fuel that is finer, and fast burning like grass.
  • Darker smoke can be a fuel such as timber which can burn longer, and embers can blow on the wind to start new fires.
  • If the smoke column seems to be growing, it's definitely time to leave the area. If possible, go in the opposite direction from the way the smoke is blowing.

More resources from American Trails:

The Legacy Trails Program administered by American Trails, supports trails projects that restore, protect, and maintain watersheds on our national forests and grasslands. This program is funded through a challenge cost share agreement with the US Forest Service to implement the Forest Service Legacy Road and Trail Remediation Program. One goal of the program is to ensure that trails are adequate for supporting emergency operations, such as evacuation routes during wildfires, floods, and other natural disasters.

Trails and Resilience: Review of the Role of Trails in Climate Resilience and Emergency Response by Federal Highway Administration

In the Path of Fire: Rebuilding Trails after the Carr Fire in California By American Trails Staff

Wildfire Restoration Handbook - a collaboration of the Coalition for the Upper South Platte, Volunteers for Outdoor Colorado, and the Rocky Mountain Field Institute.

Video: USFS Wildfire Crisis Strategy Under Secretary for Natural Resources and Environment Dr. Homer Wilkes, and USDA Forest Service Chief Randy Moore announce expanded efforts to reduce wildfire risk across the western U.S during an event on Tonto National Forest, Arizona, January 19, 2023. This $490 million investment, made possible through the Biden Administration’s Bipartisan Infrastructure Law (BIL) and the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), will directly benefit at-risk communities and critical infrastructure across 11 additional landscapes in Arizona, California, Idaho, Nevada, Oregon, Utah and Washington.

Nesmith trail fire recovery efforts by Trailkeepers of Oregon in the Columbia River Gorge after the Eagle Creek fire of 2017. Video by Ralph Bloemers.

More resources from the American Society of Landscape Architects on design at the wildland urban interface:

For up to date information about wildfires across North America see the online Fire Information for Resource Management System (FIRMS) map.

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