West Virginia: firefighter injured after falling 75 feet

WHAG is reporting that a firefighter was injured after “falling nearly 75 feet down a cliff” in or near Harpers Ferry National Historical Park in West Virginia while fighting a vegetation fire. The firefighter was stabilized at the scene and transported to Winchester Medical Center for further treatment.

Bradley Fritts, the incident commander with the Bakerton Fire Company, said the injured firefighter will remain in the hospital until Friday. Mr. Fritts said the fire would be turned over to the National Park Service Wednesday morning.

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Why wildland firefighters keep coming back

The Infotel website in Kamloops, British Columbia has an interesting article about wildland firefighters, and why they keep returning to the job year after year.

Here how piece begins:

THOMPSON-OKANAGAN – It can feel like warfare; heading into a fire, in the middle of nowhere for days on end at the mercy of Mother Nature. Yet something about being on the battle lines draws in wildland firefighters season after season.

For Jarvis Manuel, a 14-year veteran with B.C. Wildfire, it’s the people. For Thomas Martin, a four-year veteran, it’s the people. Jon Collavini, a 17-year veteran, you guessed it, it’s the people.

These three men all come from very different backgrounds yet the job is one they keep coming back to despite the uncertainty and danger. They take pride in what they do and will spend hours on end training. Some years they can spend as little as 10 per cent of their time on an actual wildfire, but not recently. This year, crews jumped from one fire to another throughout the summer…

The photos below are not fire pictures, but I took them in BC while on a motorcycle trip in 2012.

Columbia Lake

Columbia Lake in BC north of Fernie. (My bike is the Yamaha FJR1300 on the left.) Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Kootenay National Park

Kootenay National Park in BC, along Highway 93. Photo by Bill Gabbert. (click to enlarge)

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Helikite photographs prescribed fire

This video, shot from an Allsopp Helikite at an altitude of about 30 meters, demonstrates one of the potential uses of the Helikite (which I would have called a balloon). The Geography Department of Kings College in London has been experimenting with the device.

The website for the kite says it can be used for lifting radios, repeaters, antennas, cameras, and other sensors. At the Large Fire Conference in Missoula we saw something similar demonstrated.

Large Fire Conference

Missoula Large Fire Conference, May 21, 2014. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

The Tweet below shows the device being used in the UK on October 23.

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A thermal infrared camera attachment for smart phone

Seek Thermal Camera and a Motorola X smart phone. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

A thermal infrared (IR) camera that attaches to a smart phone is now available that could be useful for firefighters. The device, smaller than your thumb, connects to the USB or lightning plug on certain newer models of cell phones.

Everything (animals, humans, objects, water, etc.) emits infrared waves based on its temperature. An IR thermal camera measures these waves, which are invisible to human (or animal) eyes, and converts them into images.

We bought the new $200 Seek Thermal infrared camera to evaluate its effectiveness in helping wildland firefighters find lingering smoldering areas during the mopup stage of fire suppression. Under trees, organic material or duff can continue burning below the surface for days, weeks, or months and does not always produce smoke that can tip off a firefighter that the area needs attention. A still burning area that is missed can sometimes flare up and cause problems, possibly throwing burning embers across the fire line resulting in a slopover or spot fire with the potential to do serious damage.

Thermal cameras have traditionally been very expensive, which limited them to military and governmental applications. In the last ten years new, lower cost ($3,000-­‐$5000+) industrial thermal cameras have emerged. They have been primarily used by police, firefighters, and contractors. Structural firefighters have used them to detect fires that are behind walls or ceilings. IR cameras can’t see through objects, but they can detect a wall, for example, that has been warmed by hidden combustion. A fire that is smoldering in deep duff in a wildfire will heat the surface of the ground, making it visible to an IR device.

Some of the wildland firefighters that have been around for a while might remember the thermal IR detector that looked like a flashlight. It had no viewing screen, but simply emitted a tone when heat was detected. I believe the pitch changed as the temperature increased. I don’t know if those are still being used. Does anyone remember what the cost of those was?

The Seek Thermal infrared camera can view long wave infrared (7.2 to 13 microns), has a resolution of 206 x 156 pixels, a 36-degree field of view, can detect temperatures between -40F (-40C) and +626F (+330C), and weighs 0.5 ounce.

At $200 the Seek Thermal infrared camera is far less expensive than other thermal infrared cameras. For example, FLIR makes many models of IR cameras. Their E4 has a resolution of 80 x 60 and sells for $995 at Amazon. The FLIR E5 with 120 x 90 resolution will set you back almost $1,500. The company recently developed the FLIR ONE, which like the Seek Thermal works with a smart phone, but is a much larger case-type design which fits entirely around the phone. It sells for $349, has a resolution of 80 x 60, and can only detect temperatures of 0 to 100C. The FLIR ONE will work with an iPhone with a lightning connector; there is no Android model.

The Seek Thermal is available in two versions: Android and IPhone. The Apple model is compatible with the iPhone 5, 5c, 5s, 6, and 6+ running iOS7 or iOS 8. The Android version will work with devices having microUSB connectors running Android version 4.3.1 (Jelly Bean) or later that support USB Host Mode (also called USB On The Go or OTG). The company says it has been tested extensively with the Galaxy S4 and S5 and the Moto G and X phones.

To use it, download the Seek Thermal app from the Apple app store or the Android Google Play store. I tested it on a Motorola X running Android 4.4.4. Helpfully, there were several prescribed fires being managed in Wind Cave National Park where I was able to find realistic conditions that wildland firefighters might run across.

 Cold Brook prescribed fire

This photo of Unit #3 of the Cold Brook prescribed fire was taken four days after the IR image below, from approximately the same location. Unlike the other pairs of images this photo was taken with a different camera at a different time than the pairs of Seek Thermal IR/smart phone combination photos farther down.

thermal IR image of prescribed fire.

An IR image of approximately the same area as the previous photo. This was taken October 23, 2014 with the Seek Thermal IR camera shortly after some of the area in the image had been ignited on the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park.

The IR image above was taken about 800 feet from the prescribed fire.

The IR camera was set to display the maximum and minimum temperatures detected. Interestingly, the minimum is in the area of the sky, showing -2 F. The maximum is displayed as 189 F.

The IR camera can be set to show the following items on the image:

  • Temperature in the middle of the image; (temperatures in Fahrenheit, Kelvin, or Celsius);
  • Maximum and minimum temperatures anywhere in the image;
  • Only areas that have a temperature within the min/max range that you set;
  • No temperatures displayed;
  • Lat/long;
  • Date and time;
  • Options for several different “color pallets” to represent temperatures;
  • A  watermark for Seek Thermal, which by default is turned on, unfortunately. But, it’s easy to turn off after cruising through the menus.

In addition, you can choose to display on the screen both the IR image and a true color “normal” image taken by your phone’s camera. You can drag a slider across to emphasize either.

You can take photos, of course, with the device. If you have the option selected for both regular and IR images, it will take and save two photos. If you have the temperatures displayed, they will also appear on the regular non-IR images.

Videos are also possible, as you can see below, in this two-second thermal infrared video of firefighters near a small area of burning grass on the Cold Brook prescribed fire in Wind Cave National Park, October 23, 2014. The firefighters were from the Alpine Hotshots, preparing to ignite the prescribed fire.

More examples of images are below, showing pairs of  normal photos followed by the IR version of the same area.

IR Cold Brook prescribed fire

Note the tree’s shadow, which had been shielded from the sun, and compare it to the same area in the IR version below. The photographer’s shadow on the lower-right had only been present for seconds, and had not yet affected the temperature of the ground.

IR Cold Brook prescribed fire

IR version of the previous image. There was no visible smoke in this area. The image was taken at 3:02 p.m. MDT on a cloudless day. The air temperature, I believe, was in the 60s, but the sun heated many objects to around 100 F.  The only area in this image that was still burning was the spot near the displayed temperature of +194 F.

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Company is asking for money to develop improved fire shelter

Yarnell Hill Fire shelter

The remains of a fire shelter used on the Yarnell Hill Fire. The aluminum foil has been completely burned off, exposing the silica cloth. From the Yarnell Hill Fire report: “The burned remnants of a fire shelter that was recovered from the Yarnell Hill Fire deployment site shows signs of extremely high heat. The photo was taken during equipment inspection.”

A company is launching a social media campaign today, asking for donations to help them develop an improved fire shelter, a pup tent like enclosure that can serve as a last resort for wildland firefighters entrapped by fire.

James Moseley, founder and CEO of SunSeeker, hopes to raise $150,000 through Indiegogo, according to a press release, to build shelters with a ceramic fiber material he licensed from NASA. For the last six months he has had a campaign on Gofundme where $15,000 of his $150,000 goal has been raised.

“While previous models have been kept in a bag and were designed to be removed by hand, the Fire Blanket will be worn as a backpack, and can be deployed like a wingsuit”, Mr. Moseley said. “The packing and deploying mechanisms are being designed by Rigging Innovations, the leaders in wingsuit development.”

The existing fire shelters used by the land management agencies in the United States are made from silica cloth and aluminum foil sewed together with quartz and fiberglass thread. The problem with these materials is that quartz thread becomes brittle and can break at 2,000°F, aluminum foil will melt at 1,220°F, and silica cloth also becomes brittle at 2,000°F, according to data in the Yarnell Fire investigation report, the fire on which 19 firefighters were killed after deploying their fire shelters.  The outer foil shells were 95 to 100 percent burned away on 17 of the 19 shelters, while the foil on the other two was 80 percent burned away. The heat-resistant quartz and fiberglass thread failed in some areas on most of the shelters, causing some of the seams to separate, allowing super-heated gasses to enter. The failure of the seams and the brittle silica cloth found in some areas indicates that the temperature of the fire was over 2,000°F, hotter than many fires.

Mr. Moseley’s press release announcing the social media campaign said his shelter “can withstand temperatures up to 3,000 degrees Fahrenheit, will outperform the current shelters used by our nation’s firefighters by three times”.

However, on his website (http://sunseekerfireblanket.com/)  and Facebook page, he writes:

Utilizing NASA technology, we will develop a fire shelter that will give fire fighters over 2500°F degrees of protection!

On Mr. Moseley’s Gofundme page, he said:

We’ve collaborated closely with individuals that work with NASA and the National Forestry Service to develop a product with better fire protection than what it currently available, with our ultimate goal being that this product helps save lives.

There is no “National Forestry Service” in the United States. Mr. Moseley is probably referring to the U.S. Forest Service.

We first wrote about Mr. Mosely’s efforts in November of 2013 when he started asking for money.

A better fire shelter is needed. We hope that Mr. Moseley or someone else can come up with a better design that meets the requirements. In May of this year the U.S. Forest Service’s Washington office announced that they directed their Technology and Development Center to conduct a three-year review of the fire shelter system, which includes the fire shelter, fireline pack, practice shelters, and training. The Forest Service said the review “had been scheduled to begin in 2015, but due to factors both internally and externally, the WO-FAM requested this review process start in 2014.”

The finished product and everything that goes into it has to be high temperature resistant, foldable into a small space, easy to quickly deploy, durable enough to be carried by firefighters for years, affordable, and not too heavy.

Some will say that firefighters should avoid a situation where a fire shelter, a last resort, is needed. Of course that is true, and no firefighter should DEPEND on a shelter to save their lives. And, no firefighter should DEPEND on aircraft to serve as a lookout, drop life-saving water or retardant, or extricate them before an entrapment or at the end of a shift. But, firefighters, in spite of their best intentions, training, and wildland firefighting experience, sometimes find themselves in situations where they need a fire shelter.

That is the reality. We should take steps to improve their chances of survival.

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