Is there a way to know two weeks beforehand whether it's safe or desirable to travel to an area currently affected by wildfires?

I have a holiday booked in Northern California and Southern Oregon starting in about three weeks. Our house-swap hosts in Ashland, OR, just emailed us to let us know they are experiencing very poor air quality due to the surrounding wildfires, and have to stay inside all day, which does not sound like an inviting vacation experience.
We are travelling from New Zealand, so the cost of a cancelled ticket will be significant, especially if it's for a reason not covered by insurance (via our credit card). The hotels and B&Bs we've booked in between San Francisco (our airport of entry) and Ashland all have free cancellation, so I'm not worried about that.
Our host would like us to decide this week whether we are still coming or not, as they need to find someone else to watch their house while they are away. I don't know enough about the nature of wildfires to know if I can expect them to burn out in two weeks, or if more wildfires will start to take their place.

What can I tell him?

  • 2
    Conditions with wildfires change on an hourly basis; fires move constantly, so while they may burn for months, they don't stay in any one place for nearly as long.
    – choster
    Aug 1, 2018 at 1:07
  • 1
    Have you considered canceling the house but still going to the USA, looking for alternatives depending on local conditions when there?
    – Willeke
    Aug 1, 2018 at 10:15

2 Answers 2


Two weeks out is difficult to assess, especially as new fires are starting at a rather alarming rate. You can view a map of active wildfire incidents, though some of these are much larger than others (clicking on each one will provide maps and details about the size and effects). You can see that some of the fires in the area are not expected to be fully contained until the end of August or even later. It's also helpful to check the air quality map (click to zoom in, then select a city for even more detailed data) and this detailed smoke forecast site for Oregon.

Wildfire smoke varies significantly with the winds and fire conditions, so it's hard to predict the impacts particularly far in advance. For example, the AQI in Ashland now is 146 ("Unhealthy for Sensitive Groups" per the government standard, just below the threshold for "Unhealthy"), but switching to the "forecast" tab shows clear conditions expected for tomorrow. This satellite photo gives you an idea of the day-to-day change that are possible. As another example of how things change, the Oregon Shakespeare Festival in Ashland has been deciding whether to cancel outdoor shows only an hour or two before showtime based on conditions.

In general, I'd say you can still have a good time if you're able to be flexible. Except for strenuous outdoor activities, some smoke won't ruin all your plans. The entire region is not covered in hazardous smoke all the time (San Francisco, for instance, is smoke-free and generally remains so due to geographical reasons). But there's a lot of smoke around, some of it bad enough that you don't want to be out in it. Staying closer to the coast can help, as would a willingness to move on to Portland or another destination if conditions warrant.

But I don't think anyone can really predict specific conditions two weeks out; many of the fires that we're talking about hadn't started two weeks ago.

It's a good idea to pickup inexpensive N95 or N100 masks just in case you do get caught out, as they can be impossible to find when there's thick smoke and you really want them.

  • 4
    Things can change fast. The terrible Fort McMurray, Alberta fire two years ago went from not existing to seriously threatening the city in only two days. Jul 31, 2018 at 22:00

If you have your tickets and other travel booked already, you should go on the trip - it's rather hard to know weeks ahead for any given day what conditions will be. The chances of terrible smoke every day during your trip are relatively low, given wind direction and general conditions right now, and the chance of less and less smoke in the Ashland area throughout August seems decent. There may even be a slight amount if rain in the next week or two. https://www.accuweather.com/en/us/ashland-or/97520/daily-weather-forecast/335282?day=6

Currently the worst fire in the region, called "Carr", is near Redding, CA; there are a number of other fires from Central Oregon down into Northern CA, including at least one in OR and two others in CA that are over 10k acres. However, most active fires near the CA-OR border are quite small right now. You will have to travel either through the Redding area on I-5, or take a route further from the fires (ie. closer to the coast, through Eureka) up US Hwys 101 and 1. You could avoid the smokiest areas if necessary given road conditions as they stand.

If you're willing to be flexible about the conditions in Ashland, and be willing to change the locations where you might stay in CA, things could work out perfectly fine. A few days indoors there wouldn't mean you couldn't still visit the coast, which is often immune to inland wildfire smoke. On the other hand, it is a small risk you're playing with, as it's looking like a bad fire season and new fires could be growing in Northern Calif by the time you get here.

If you're able to bring extra things with you in your suitcase that could help with adverse air conditions, that would be prudent. Extra clothing, water (bottles), and possibly masks are the most obvious. https://www.uline.com/Product/Detail/S-10479/Dust-Masks-and-Respirators/Uline-N95-Standard-Industrial-Respirator-with-Valve?pricode=WB0200 https://www.outsideonline.com/1783256/what-do-i-need-know-about-traveling-wildfire-country https://www.sacbee.com/news/weather/article214428159.html

In short, it might seem like a good idea right now to cancel the trip due to what you see in the media, but if the weather clears up, you might really regret having spent the money! The main caveat is to watch changing conditions daily, including signing up for alerts from state & federal systems.

P.s. Useful information on fire conditions For Calif: http://www.fire.ca.gov/general/firemaps CalFire app and SMS alert: http://calfire.ca.gov/communications/socialmedia Roads: http://quickmap.dot.ca.gov For Mtn West: https://fsapps.nwcg.gov


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