Explainer: I see smoke – now what?

June 17, 2019 – Temperatures are about to really heat up, the suspension of burn permits goes into effect today and high fire season is just around the corner. Time for the yearly refresher on what to do when you see smoke.

The most important rule: If you see flames or a huge smoke plume developing, call 911 before you call or text us!


Any plume of smoke is, of course, a cause for concern. But, what if you only smell smoke? Here are a few tips:

First, look around

If you smell smoke, first make sure you are safe. Check your home or location for any visible smoke or flames. Step outside, look around the immediate vicinity. Do you see flames or smoke billowing nearby? Leave the area and call 911. Report what you see, give a precise location i.e. street address and a cross street. Especially if you are calling from a cell phone, make sure you give the dispatcher your city and address. If you see a column of smoke or flames while driving and you don’t see first responders on scene, pull over to a safe area before calling.

Use common sense

During business hours, call your local fire department or CAL FIRE or the Forest Service if you are concerned about an unusual smoke buildup. Do not call 911 if you cannot see a column or flames, it could overwhelm the system and cause emergency calls to have a delayed response.

During fire season, smoke is often a part of daily life. In the early morning hours, only a faint odor and a light haze may be noticeable. As the day goes by, temperatures heat up and the trapped smoke will start to rise, intensifying the smell and reducing visibility.

At night, a breeze can have smoke waft into your house, apply the same rules as above. Look around you, step outside and assess the situation.

Firefighters will be dispatched to conduct a “smoke check” – therefore make sure you have as much information as possible. Especially on weekends, make sure it’s not just your neighbor having a barbecue.

Avoid calls to the emergency services for updates on fires. Your local media is your best source for information – they are working in cooperation with the emergency services (Think #ReadyNevadaCounty for example) to get the word out.

Warming, cooking, and ceremonial fires are legal year round – as long as they are in designated fire ring/pit/BBQ type settings. Some exceptions apply in the South Yuba River canyon – fires on private property are prohibited starting today until the end of declared fire season if no permanent water source is available. This applies mostly to unimproved parcels in the 1/4 mile corridor of the river – no water, no fire!

Fire services add the caveat that people are always responsible for any fire they light, legal or illegal. If a fire in a designated fire ring gets too big and ignites the surrounding area on fire, that person could be/will be held liable. Check for fire restrictions if you are recreating on public lands!

Emergency dispatchers get 911 calls all summer long from people reporting their neighbors having a small warming fire in the backyard, in a designated fire pit. It’s perfectly legal.

Better safe than sorry

If you smell a strong “electrical” smell in your home, be aware of the possibility of wires shorting out and causing a fire, call 911.

If you notice power lines on the ground, never touch them as they could be energized. Call 911 and let the dispatcher know that power lines are on the ground. Firefighters need to know this information to be able to protect you and themselves from electrocution – and the utility company needs to be notified by dispatchers.

Once you have alerted the emergency services, you can always email [email protected], call 530-478-9600 or text 530-409-9888 to let us know too.

All large fires are constantly updated in our Fire News section and smaller, local incidents will be listed in the Happening Now running log. You can of course follow us on Twitter, either @YubaNet for general news or @YubaNetFire for emergencies.

PS: Your Go bag is ready and you have a plan in case of a fire, right? Be smart and be safe!