With cool wet winters and hot dry summers, wildfires in the American West are inevitable every summer. Indeed, wildfire is so common the ecosystems of the west have adapted to and become dependent upon fire. Southern California is most prone to fires and if you aren't already familiar with the desert, you will be surprised by how much dry wood litters the ground. During your thru-hike there will undoubtedly be one or more wildland fires burning somewhere in California, Oregon, or Washington. What's uncertain is whether the fires will effect the PCT or not.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (aka CAL FIRE) provides up-to-date information on all wildfires in California and maintains a Google map of current fire locations. If you carry a smartphone on your thru-hike, it is wise to bookmark these two sites, as well as follow CAL FIRE
on Twitter (@CAL_FIRE) and facebook (https://www.facebook.com/CALFIRE/).
The PCTA maintains a page dedicated to current trail conditions and closures. It is a good idea to bookmark that page in your smartphone's web browser so that it's easily accessible during your hike. The PCTA crowdsources information about trail conditions, so if you discover a problem, please report it online or call the PCTA office at 916-285-1846.
Fire is the most common reason for a trail closure. When a section of Trail must be closed, the PCTA recommends detours around the closure and most of the time this means roadwalking.
A Section Might Stay Closed for Years
A section of the PCT may remain closed for years after a wildfire has been contained and extinguished. While frustrating for hikers, it's unavoidable because fire damage to the Trail can take years to repair — and all that work is done by volunteers. For example, without plants to hold hillsides together, erosion and mudslides may obliterate the Trail, which then has to be completely recreated. And until the process of ecological succession has begun and plants return, the presence of hikers may exacerbate erosion.
Sections that have been closed for a while are identified in Yogi's PCT Handbook, the databook, and the PCTA's trail closures and conditions page, so you will be able to anticipate closures and plan accordingly.
Sudden, Unexpected Closures
Wildfires erupt and move quickly so sometimes a section of the trail may suddenly close without warning. The PCTA works to keep hikers up-to-date on their trail closures and conditions page, but it's entirely possible for you to come upon a closure with no prior warning. For obvious logistical reasons you will usually find closure notices posted at road crossings. When you do, always follow the detour even if it means roadwalking. Never enter the closed area.
Always Follow the Detour
It should be common sense to stay out of a fire closure area, but we have talked to hikers who were so determined to "hike the whole trail" they hiked through a closure anyway. Don't do it. First, it's illegal. Second, even if the fire was extinguished years ago hiking through the burn area is still foolish and unethical. All traces of the trail may have vanished and so you can get lost. Burned trees and limbs can break and fall onto the Trail. And until new plant growth is established and the Trail is properly graded, hikers can cause tremendous erosion and destruction.
We don't think anyone is dumb enough to do this, but we'll mention that hiking into a closure while a fire is burning is extremely dangerous. Even if the flames are miles away and the air isn't too smokey, the winds can suddenly change direction, bringing suffocating smoke and transforming the land into an inferno. Flying embers can travel miles and ignite spot fires far from the main fire. And if authorities learn you are in the closure, they will divert people away from fighting the fire to search for you.
Throughout the desert section between Campo and Kennedy Meadows fires are not allowed on the PCT. Yes, occasionally the PCT passes a car-camping campground (like a KOA) with established campfire rings, charcoal grills, and other amenities, but more often than not the state of California will have banned fires there too. The risk of wildfire is just too great, so you should assume that fire restrictions are in place and never build a fire.
Even when you are north of Kennedy Meadows, we strongly discourage you from making a campfire.
There are so many examples of hiker campfires triggering wildfires out west, we can't possibly go through them all. The most recent one started July 22, 2016 in California's Garrapata State Park. Known as the Soberanes Fire, it has been the most expensive firefighting effort in U.S. history. Cal Fire investigators determined it was caused by an illegal and unattended campfire. While this did not happen on the PCT, it easily could have.
The largest fire ever in the Sierra Nevada was the 2013 Rim Fire. It began in the Stanislaus National Forest when a hunter started a campfire, and would ultimately threaten Yosemite National Park, Giant Sequoias, (the largest and oldest living things on Earth) and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, San Fransisco's primary water source.
Ultralight backpackers on the Appalachian Trail have embraced DIY alcohol stoves made from soda cans, and a few companies sell high-end versions made of titanium. Similarly there are backpacking stoves that use locally found fuel like twigs. Neither should ever be used anywhere on the PCT.
The PCT is not the AT, folks. It's a giant tinder box waiting to explode. Alcohol stoves tip over easily. Their fuel is not contained. You can't turn them off with the turn of a knob. A few ounces of weight savings just isn't worth the risk.