A close call with the McKinney Fire

On Friday, July 29th, thru-hiker Jen “Gets-there” Olson was hiking through Northern California on the PCT when the group of twelve hikers she was with camped for the evening about eleven miles northeast of Seiad Valley. “I knew that fire season was upon us at this point and that this had been a common area for fires in the past few years,” she said.

Around 4pm, two northbound hikers passed Jen’s group and said they had seen smoke. Shortly afterward a southbound hiker also mentioned seeing smoke. What the group didn’t know was that their campsite was only about seven miles north of the nearest perimeter of the McKinney Fire, which had started hours earlier and grown rapidly.

The glow of the McKinney Fire around 10pm from a campsite near the PCT. Photo by Jen Olson.

As the sun dropped below the mountains, the group saw the southern sky light up with a red glow. “Shortly after 8pm,” says Jen, “the wind picked up and we could really smell it.” It was the smell of smoke. Unsure what to do or how far away the fire was, the group stayed put. Around 9pm, lightning split the sky. “I was trying to decide whether to pack up and leave or stay when I heard another hiker loudly exclaim ‘Holy sh*t! Did you see that?’ I climbed out of my tent. He had watched lightning strike the ground, and we saw another three strikes over the next 45 minutes.”

Around 10pm, ash began to fall on the group, and an SOS was sent from a satellite messenger device. This put them in touch with the Jackson County, Oregon sheriff’s office. “The sheriff told us to continue hiking north and not to cancel the SOS until we had reached safety—so we packed up and kept hiking,” said Jen. “We paired off with buddies for safety and spread out along the trail. About 5 miles later we reached a dirt road, and decided to get some sleep. We only pulled our tents and sleeping bags from our packs, and someone set an alarm to go off every hour so we could keep checking our surroundings for any signs of the fire getting close. Finally at 5am we decided to get moving again.”

The McKinney Fire smoke plume seen from several miles to the north near the California/Oregon border. Photo by Jen Olson.

The next morning began like any other on the trail, but then the group saw the smoke plume. “We began to wonder what we’d do if the fire came close?” remembers Jen. “I was wondering, should I lay down on the ground? Should I run? By 10am the sky was filled with dense smoke—so much that the sun was gone. We couldn’t see it anywhere. We knew it was a bad situation.” At that point Jen sent her own SOS from her satellite messenger. The response again was “Keep hiking north.” When she had a signal on her phone, she called her husband, who confirmed they were in a fire evacuation zone.

By around noon Saturday, Jen reached a trailhead near the California/Oregon border. There she met a day hiker, “PB&J,” who gave her a ride to Grants Pass, Oregon, where she met her husband who had driven down from Washington.

The same day, the Jackson County Sheriff’s office and local search and rescue mobilized to evacuate dozens of other hikers north from the PCT and into Southern Oregon near the Applegate Reservoir. Jackson County officials reached out to the Medford, Oregon-based Rogue Valley Transportation District which utilized two RVTD buses to transport hikers to the Rogue Valley.

Happy to reach the California/Oregon border—closer to safety. Photo by Jen Olson.

For Jen, the experience was frightening enough to end her thru-hike. “My hike up to that point had been amazing—hard, yet satisfying. I was looking forward to cruising through Oregon. After being evacuated, I knew that I was done and would not be able to continue hiking with the same enjoyment,” she said. “There would always be an underlying fear.” After the incident, she described waking up in fear, trying to get out of her tent. “I’ve done almost 3,000 miles on long trails and never been scared before, so it was almost like the trail slapped me in the face and said maybe I should be scared?”

This was Jen’s second attempt at a thru-hike. In 2018, she was new to hiking and backpacking and set off from Campo, California to see how far she’d get. She made it as far as Belden, California, when she was stopped by the Murphy Fire in the Feather River Canyon. “I’m not sure, at this point, that I will ever be able to get back out there. I’m hoping with time, the fear will lessen and I will be able to go back and finish.”

Jen’s story has a wildly coincidental and happy ending: “About a week after I came home, I went up to White Pass, Washington to do some trail magic. While there, who did I see ambling down the trail but PB&J—the same person who gave me a ride away from the McKinney Fire!” The two had a happy reunion and exchanged stories.

Jen and PB&J reunited at White Pass, Washington. Photo by Jen Olson.

Learn more on our website about how to react to wildfires and what to know about fire restrictions, watches and warnings. And our Trail Closures page offers information on any current PCT closures throughout the year.

Author: Scott Wilkinson

Scott Wilkinson is the PCTA’s Content Development Director. A former professional musician, Scott has 20+ years of experience in almost every marketing role. Before joining the PCTA he was a marketing/creative director at West Virginia University and the University of Oregon. A serious outdoor addict, Scott is an experienced whitewater paddler, hang glider pilot, flyfisher, mountain biker, and (of course) hiker and backpacker.