Hope for a better fire shelter

Yarnell Hill Fire shelter
Yarnell Hill Fire shelter
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.”

Wildland firefighters who carry pup tent-like aluminum foil fire shelters hope they never have to unfold and climb into them as a wildfire approaches. Quite a few firefighters have deployed and survived inside them, but too many have died using the limited protection it provides.

The investigation that followed the deaths of 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots June 30 on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona found that all of the fire shelters were very seriously damaged during the burnover. The outer foil shell was 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 shelters are constructed of numerous panels of material that are sewn together with heat-resistant quartz and fiberglass thread which failed in some areas on most of the shelters, causing some of the seams to separate, allowing super-heated gasses to enter.

Quartz thread becomes brittle and can break at 2,000°F, aluminum foil will melt at 1,220°F, and silica cloth, one of the layers in the shelter, becomes brittle at 2,000°F, according to data in the investigation report. 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.

With the spectacular failures of the shelters on the Yarnell Hill Fire, some are calling for firefighters to be outfitted with designs that are more survivable. I received a call several weeks ago from a father of one of the Granite Mountain 19 that is exploring options for better shelters.

A company in Valencia, California is asking for donations so that they can build a prototype of a shelter made with ceramic fiber that, depending on the grade, can withstand continuous use up to 1,472°F or 2,462°F. Jim Moseley is the CEO of the company, SunSeeker Enterprises, Inc. which in addition to designing a new-generation fire shelter sells “fire blankets to 3000°F” for structures. Mr. Moseley is featured in the video below in which he is seen wearing clothing advertising a golf course and a shark-watching tour company. He also is the principle in The Great Trombonist, LLC, based in Los Angeles.

Finding high-temperature-resistant material is one step toward producing a practical fire shelter. But 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.

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.

Some will no doubt 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 and wildland firefighting experience, find themselves forced into fire shelters. That is the reality. If possible, we should take steps to improve their chances of survival.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills. Google+

21 thoughts on “Hope for a better fire shelter”

  1. Amen to that back . 1973 Safety First team that I was on ask for a better fire shelter which was set aside maybe it will happen this time.

  2. If a better one can be developed I’m all for it. We do need to provide our crews with the best and most user friendly equipment possible. But along with it comes the responsibility to try to stay out situations that require shelter use.

    Just one breath of the super heated air will knock you out, and the rest is history.

    I don’t want to pass specific judgments on the actions of Granite Mt. crew but it looks like they were exposed to a situation that was not survivable under the circumstances, fire intensity and safety equipment available. Just how they got there is for better informed persons then myself to decide.

    In the end common sense and good decision making is the best way to avoid having to depend on last ditch measures like fire shelters.

  3. I’m sure it is worth investigating, but at those temperatures, the air will sear your lungs. We went to a “better” shelter in the last ten years, and it is significantly heavier. That slows you and and tires you faster as a firefighter.

    Canadian firefighters stopped carrying shelters in 2005. Without the shelters, they are more cautious about where to send firefighters, and it has proven safer.

    1. I’d be intested to hear what a sampling of 100 Canadian wildland firefighters would have to say about management making a decision for them to take away fire their shelters. I mean, that decision had to have come down from above, not a rank & file decision.

      24 fire seasons, and I never popped a fire shelter. I certainly never thought about it being on my pack while considering or discussing tactics to fit the strategy. It was just another impliment attached there, much like a water bottle, or my file. But I did think about my shelter a handful of times after the decision was made to retreat to a safety zone. I’d rather have carried it for 24 seasons, and never needed it, than not have it and need it just once. Yeah, they are a little heavy, but FF are strong people.

      1. Gatwood, as one of those way down the food chain, we were all happy with the decision to abort shelters… They were heavy and maybe 1% of us felt that we would willingly crawl in one. We ramped up our situational awareness, concentrated on fire behaviour and thats all she wrote..

        1. I like it! We need to get away from the NFPA mentality in this country! Stop trying to make technology firefighter proof everything. Rely on training not technology. Your training won’t fail you, unlike technology..

  4. So we build a shelter that can withstand higher temperatures. Why? The human body can not withstand half the heat the current shelter are rated at. Even if we build a shelter that can withstand direct flame impingement I doubt you could survive the heat inside the shelter. Remember we have to carry these on the fireline and the new ones are probably twice as heavy as the old shelters.

    1. Indeed. It hardly matters how the shelter holds up, if there’s a survivable interior environment that persists long enough. And it doesn’t matter at all how the shelter holds up, if there is *not* a survivable interior environment that persists long enough.

      Whatever is in that yellow pouch, believing that it is filled with tissue paper will produce the best outcomes.

  5. All very good statements. If you are going to invent a last resort it better be a good one and cover every thing.

  6. The comments highlight that to try to develop survivability for 2000+ degree scenarios, you need a whole system approach. Aluminum foil melting at 1200 F sounds insufficient, but SCBA (which would be one way to try to address actual survivability) starts to fail above 500 degrees. Inside current shelters, air temps might be moving up to 500 at least at the skin of the shelter right when the aluminum starts to melt at 1200 outside. So, just like infantry have some people carrying heavier gear, you could assign “SCBA/ PPE mules” to a crew, at great cost and with a noticeable reduction in work capacity for the crew as a whole, and still not have a different burnover outcome unless you could put a lot of insulation between the exterior of the shelter and the interior. Some of the best insulation is still dirt and terrain, though these take time to access.

    One of the GM aspects not really talked about publicly that I’ve seen also is choice of deployment site relative to behavior of heat and fire gases. Joy and Sonny had noted the proximity of terrain likely to produce some eddies that could have had lower-temp pockets relative to where deployment occurred.

    I still think better gear could be great, but only if it’s looked at holistically in terms of everything that would be required to utilize that gear effectively.

  7. While I salute the father of the fallen firefighter, and the brother of the other fallen firefighter who did come up with the current design, personally I would rather see more investigation/money put into human group dynamics, which seems to be a major factor in why the crew went where they did.
    Stay the hell out of the path of the fire, nothing, NOTHING is worth the lives lost.

  8. Good over view of the fire shelter design by Bill Gabbert, but two significant items were missing. #1) The adhesive that glues the AL foil onto the silica comes “unglued” at around 525 degrees F., and #2) The shelter doesn’t stand up erect on its own; the Forest Service tests it using tent poles inside to hold it up.

  9. Let’s not continue to have first responders in harms way of a wildfire. The 3 big contributors to fire behaviour as we all very well know is; fuel, weather, topography. Why would anyone want to compromise the lives of firefighters in order to protect a forest or structures., knowing the severity of an out of control wildfire. If situational awareness is always adhered to and the ever present adherance to LACES (lookouts, anchor point, communications, escape routes-2, & safety) combined with leadership then fatalities from fire burnover will not be in the news. Bottom line; get rid of the fire shelters entirely…it gives a very false sense of security & nobody should ever be in a place where it should be considered as an option to survive from burnover.
    Follow the Canadian approach and do not carry the fire shelter and it will save many lives in the USA…the fire science, the facts & the stats clearly prove this. Sincerely from a Canadian wildland fire person with 39 yrs experience.

      1. Bill, no I don’t have the facts, stats, etc. right on hand but I’m sure they’re available. Fire science indicates extreme air temperatues, fire intensity, rates & direction of spread & likelihood of fire spotting. Options are available to responders & becoming much more supported in past couple decades at all levels of many agencies. Options may be tactical repostioning or withdrawl, strategic decision for modified response which may be protection of adjacent values only, aerial action only, observe only. These decisions are based on fire behaviour prediction factored into all fire responses. You manage an excellent web site here Bill, thank you.

        1. In terms of fire shelter stats, it seems there is an issue with sample size. But, it also seems they had a pretty good record until this year. And, it is not clear at all that a feeling of comfort from carrying shelters contributed at all to the GM burnover. I agree in general with looking to fire science, and I also agree that burnovers should not be viewed as an acceptable risk. The Canadian approach may also be a better one. I just think in looking at fire shelters as used in the US, we should be cautious in assuming that the fact that shelters were used in an event involving fatalities represents a shelter shortcoming, as opposed to a possible shortcoming involving other practices.

        1. Agree with you 100%, it helped you get through almost 40 seasons and me, 30 so far.

          When was the last entrapment that you can remember??? Chisholm, Maybe???

          I can’t think of any in BC

  10. The subject of self-contained breathing apparatus was brought up. I have been hoping to read the Maricopa County Medical Examiner’s report to better understand the agents of cause of death but that is unlikely. But… the Yavapai County Sheriff’s Office incident report for the burnover conveyed that the cause of death was “…. a combination of thermal injuries and smoke and carbon monoxide inhalation….”.

    During this blast furnace shelter deployment I can’t imagine anything saving lives. I hope that hypoxia, oxygen starvation caused by the extreme rate of combustion, perhaps beginning even minutes (?!) before the burnover shortened the amount of time the crew suffered in those final excruciating moments.

    Still, a better system will provide greater sheltering protection in all but the most extreme scenarios.

  11. I have read all of the comments above. Not one of the comments listed the supervisors responsible for the positioning of the fire crews. Neither here nor there. With all that said I have a comment. One post listed having mules to carry the protection. It’s funny that expense was talked about. Hmmmm. Well I have to think a mule is a very good idea. Not in the literal meaning of animal. Our resources are basically unlimited here in the USA when it comes to protecting burning trees and shrubs. None the less we still do not want the fire to burn up those resources. That said, history repeats itself. Lives are lost and generations of family’s are lost as well. Will it happen again. YES. Why? Because ignorance is human nature and education is only as good as the teacher. No offense. I have fought fires for 10 years now. Not consecutively. I am no expert and was never in a leadership position. Here is what I have to say. Developing a new fire shelter is a must. Along with the new fire shelter comes new education and new ways of fire fighting. To protect those that fight fires there needs to be a way of protecting them 100 percent. I am here to tell you the possibility exists. The shelter is in the process of testing and completion should arrive spring 2015. Updates and location for testing and functionality will be posted as phases are completed. So far phase 1 of 4 is being completed. Thank you for reading this post. Mike

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