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.