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Forest Fire Survival: Background information when reading The River

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The River

by Peter Heller

The River by Peter Heller X
The River by Peter Heller
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  • First Published:
    Mar 2019, 272 pages

    Mar 2020, 272 pages


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Book Reviewed by:
Adrienne Pisch
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About this Book

Forest Fire Survival

This article relates to The River

Print Review

Wildfire in Washington state 2017The River sets college students Jack and Wynn in a race against a forest fire as they canoe down the Maskwa River to the Hudson Bay with little chance of rescue. In recent years there has been an uptick in the number, severity and duration of forest fires, likely due to climate change (See Escalating Wildfires in the Western U.S.), so it is more important than ever to be aware of safety protocols.

Four out of five wildfires are started by humans, whether through tossing a cigarette out a car window, downed power lines, arson or not properly dousing a campfire. Natural ignition occurs most frequently because of lightning strikes. There are three elements a wildfire requires: heat, oxygen and fuel; this means that drought and warm weather both contribute to the fires' spread and longevity.

Forest fires can travel at speeds exceeding 6 mph, consuming everything in their path. Firefighters must attempt to stop the fire's spread rather than put it out immediately, because wildfires typically have too much energy to be completely doused. If properly contained, the fire will run out of fuel. Water or fire retardant is also used to reduce the heat and oxygen levels. Creating firebreaks by clearing portions of the environment to remove consumable fuel is a powerful tool. This can be done preventatively, like a park service clearing strips of forest every year, or it can be done to contain an already-spreading fire. Firefighters may also choose to perform a controlled burn - purposefully burning outlying sections of forest before the uncontrolled fire can use its fuel to continue to grow.

However, firebreaks and controlled burns can fail. If a fire is large enough, it may have enough energy to "jump" over areas that lack consumable fuel. In The River, Jack and Wynn are in danger even on the water because the fire could spread to the banks on either side, causing the air above to become superheated. Burns, smoke inhalation and falling debris are all potential concerns.

If caught in a forest fire, it is difficult to outrun the blaze—it moves both quickly and unpredictably. In general, however, a fire will burn more quickly uphill as its heat radiates upward. So if you find yourself in such a fire, you should attempt to move downhill toward natural firebreaks like bare rock, dirt or water. If possible, move behind the fire into a place that has already been burned; this area will have limited fuel. The superheated air and smoke inhalation are the next major concerns. You should stay low, potentially even burying yourself in the dirt or submerging yourself in water, and breathe directly toward the ground.

When going into a forest, do research on fire risks ahead of time, along with fire safety practices, and avoid starting fires unless absolutely necessary. For more information, read The National Park Service Wildland Fire Safety Guide.

Washington state wildfire, courtesy of The University of Arizona Research, Discovery & Innovation

Filed under Nature and the Environment

Article by Adrienne Pisch

This "beyond the book article" relates to The River. It originally ran in May 2019 and has been updated for the March 2020 paperback edition. Go to magazine.

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