Fire shelter packaging has failed on two recent firefighter entrapments

Valley fire entrapment site

Entrapment site of firefighters on the Valley Fire. Photo from the CAL FIRE report. (click to enlarge)

When two firefighters in California being overrun by flames on the Valley Fire in September of this year found that the plastic bag around their fire shelters had partially melted making it very difficult to deploy the life-saving device, it was not the first time this has happened.

A year earlier on the Beaver Fire in northern California two other firefighters experienced the same issue. The plastic became soft making it impossible for the tear strip to function. One of them used a knife to cut through the soft material that acted like “Saran Wrap”, and later said, “It wasn’t like the practice shelter at all”.

Four firefighters on the Valley Fire suffered significant burns to their heads, faces, arms, and hands before they were able to get into the shelters. The injuries on the Beaver Fire were less serious.

The Beaver Fire report addressed the failure of the fire shelter packaging:

Two of the firefighters who deployed reported that their shelter’s PVC bag became hot, which made it soft and pliable. This affected the ability of the red tear strip to pull apart.

But there was no recommendation that the design be modified.

The report on the 2015 Valley Fire entrapment describes a similar problem:

…FF4 had difficulty opening the fire shelter case from the Chainsaw Pack; the clear plastic covering of the fire shelter was soft and melted. FF4 had to remove the gloves to tear the plastic away from the aluminum shell of the fire shelter. FF3 couldn’t get the fire shelter out of the case because the clear plastic cover was melted to the white plastic protective sleeve…

One of the first times shelters were used was in 1964 when 36 members of the El Cariso Hotshots deployed them on a fire near Cajon Pass in southern California. Two years later 12 men on the crew were killed when they were entrapped on the Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest — they were not carrying shelters at the time. In the hours before they began their fatal downhill fireline construction assignment the fire in that area had not been very active.

The U.S. Forest Service has modified the design of fire shelters several times since they were introduced in the 1960s. After 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed on the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013 in spite of using the devices, the USFS began an effort to redesign them and has been testing numerous materials and configurations, including insulation that has been supplied by NASA.

The Press Democrat has a lengthy article about the recent deployments and the design of fire shelters.

…Firefighters across Sonoma County said they had been anxious to see the official preliminary Cal Fire “green sheet,” a summary of the incident released Oct. 3 detailing how the firefighters became injured [on the Valley Fire]. Many said they were stunned to learn about the plastic melting and the equipment failure on the survival tents they will all carry in the next wildland blaze even as the effectiveness of that equipment is under review.

Firefighters, especially those who jump into the thick of it, deal with extreme situations and the equipment must be able to withstand those situations, they said.

Ernie Loveless, who ran Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit for 20 years until he retired five years ago, said he was concerned about the durability of the bags after they were introduced in 2004.

“It seemed strange to have safety stuff like that made out of plastic that will melt in extreme heat,” said Loveless, who is now Schell-Vista fire board president. “I asked: ‘Why do we put stuff in plastic?’ The answer I received from our academy at the time is it was the best material they knew of at the time.”…

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Chris.

Was the 2014 wildfire season in California affected by climate change?

Happy Camp Complex, 2014

Happy Camp Complex in northern California in 2014. Photo by Kari Greer.

2014 was a busy year in California for wildland firefighters. Battles were fought over 555,044 acres of blackened ground in the state, which was the eighth largest number of acres burned in the last 28 years. So far in 2015, fires have covered 838,465 acres in California, which puts it fifth highest in 28 years.  (Stats from Cal FIRE and the NIFC National Situation Report.)

We have always been dubious of linkages between one weather event and long term climate change. When a senator brings a snowball onto the Senate floor or a governor talks about this summer’s fires to prove their cases that climate change does or does not exist, both may be over stating their “evidence”.

However, I’m not a meteorologist or climate scientist. But some of them who are, took a stab at investigating the possible attribution of extreme weather-related events in 2014 to global climate change. In their report, Explaining Extreme Events of 2014 from a Climate Perspective33 different research groups explored the causes of 29 different events that occurred that year.

The first event in the report is titled, Extreme Fire Season in California: A Glimpse Into the Future. It is debatable if the 2014 fire season in California was “extreme”, since like we wrote earlier, it had the eighth largest number of acres burned in the last 28 years according to data from the land management agencies. The authors, Jin-Ho Yoon, S.-Y. Simon Wang, Robert R. Gillies, Lawrence Hipps, Ben Kravitz, and Philip J. Rasch, reported “thousands more fires than the five-year average” between January 1 and September 20.

We don’t put very much stock in numbers of fires, since a small spot that can be stomped out by a couple of firefighters counts just as much as a 300,000-acre conflagration. Total burned acres is much more meaningful. The area burned data that the scientists studied was derived from satellite observations, which can underestimate wildfire extent due to its limit in the minimum detectable burned area, timing of the satellite overflights, light fuels cooling before being detected, and obscuration by cloud cover.

The report also examined the Keetch-Byram Drought index, and determined that “in terms of the KBDI and the extreme fire risk, 2014 ranks first in the entire state”, but it was not clear what time period they were referring to (it may have been since 1979).

The authors fall short of attributing the “extreme” 2014 fire season in California to global climate change:

Our result, based on the CESM1 outputs, indicates that man-made global warming is likely one of the causes that will exacerbate the areal extent and frequency of extreme fire risk, though the influence of internal climate variability on the 2014 and the future fire season is difficult to ascertain.

2014 climate events

Location and types of events analyzed in the publication. The image is from the study.

Wildfire briefing, November 5, 2015

Deceased man found in vegetation fire

Firefighters found the body of a 90-year-old man in a brushfire on November 3 near Bainbridge, Ohio. Preliminary indications are that Melvin B. Elliott was raking leaves during the early stages of the fire, but the cause of death has not been determined.

California city bans drones during emergencies

The city council of Poway, California passed a new ordinance this week that prohibits launching, operating or landing drones in any part of the city where an emergency has been declared. The objective is to eliminate conflicts between unmanned aerial vehicles and helicopters or fixed wing aircraft responding to the incident. Several times this year hobby drones flown near wildfires have required firefighting helicopters and air tankers to be grounded for safety reasons.

Efforts to wrest control of federal lands can’t be ignored

The movement to grab federal lands, such as national forests, BLM land, and national parks, and turn it over to states or private landowners can’t be ignored. The efforts are real and are not going away. At least 37 land transfer bills have been introduced in state legislatures with six of them passing; another four have been finalized as “study” legislation.

Below is an excerpt from an article in Wyofile written by Angus M. Thuermer Jr., in which the view is expressed that one of the tactics is to starve federal agencies by reducing their funding, then accuse them of mismanagement, and arguing that states, individuals, or large companies would be better land managers.

[The views of Whit Fosburgh, president and CEO of the Theodore Roosevelt Conservation Partnership] illuminate the seriousness with which some in the conservation community are now viewing the renewed Sagebrush Rebellion. The movement is supported by a strategy that’s decades old — starving land management agencies — transfer critics say. Launched under the guise of deficit reduction and fiscal responsibility, budget cutting is also a cynical ploy to sow dissatisfaction of federal western land management at the grassroots level, Fosburgh contends.

Lawsuit alleges CAL FIRE misrepresented death benefits to families of deceased pilots

This article first appeared at Fire Aviation.


Families of firefighting pilots killed in the line of duty in California have filed a lawsuit charging that officials in the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CAL FIRE) intentionally misinformed them of their entitlement to death benefits.

According to the Sacramento Bee,

They “intentionally misrepresented to the survivors that the only available death benefit they might apply for was those available from” the federal government, the claim states. “Cal Fire executives made these representations knowing them to be false, and at the time they were well aware of the existence of benefits required to be paid under (state law).”

The lawsuit lists 14 pilots that were killed while fighting fires in California. Two of those were employees of DynCorp which has a contract to provide pilots and maintenance for the state’s S-2 air tankers. The other 12 worked for air tanker companies under contract to the U.S. Forest Service…

Read the rest at Fire Aviation.

Dash cam video shot during the Valley Fire released

The Lake County Sheriff’s Office has released dash cam video shot during the early hours of the Valley Fire. Deputies struggled while the fire was spreading very rapidly to notify and evacuate residents. Four homeowners were killed and four CAL FIRE firefighters were entrapped and seriously burned in the fire that burned 76,000 acres and 1,200 homes in three counties 62 miles north of San Francisco.

At one point in the video you see deputies Rob Rumfelt and Kalen Brockwalder race toward a burning car, but had to turn back due to the intensity of the flames.

LA Times refutes California Governor’s assertion that larger fires are caused by climate change

When California Governor Jerry Brown visited the site of the Rocky Fire that burned over 69,000 acres and destroyed 43 homes, he linked this summer’s large fires in his state to climate change, saying, according to the LA Times,

The fires are changing…. The way this fire performed, it’s not the way it usually has been. Going in lots of directions, moving fast, even without hot winds… It’s a new normal. California is burning.

In an article that should have been published on the Opinion page rather than in the News section, LA Times Reporter Paige St. John wrote:

Brown had political reasons for his declaration.

Ms. St. John supported her argument by listing positions the Governor has taken on climate change, implying, therefore, that the Governor’s stance on climate change is “political”. Governor Brown previously encouraged presidential candidates to state their position on climate change, supported legislation to reduce gasoline use in California, and has spoken about climate change negotiations that culminate in Paris in December.

The article also includes information from fire experts who mention other factors that affect fire behavior, such as landscapes altered by a century of fire suppression, timber cutting, and development.

Ms. St. John wrote:

But climate scientists’ computer models show only that global warming will bring consistently hotter weather in future decades. Their predictions that warming will bring more forest fires — mostly in the Rockies and at other higher elevations, while fires may actually decrease in Southern California — also are for future decades.

The NOAA chart below, from an article we published in September, 2014, displays the average temperature in California for January through August of each year, from 1900 to 2014. It shows a clear trend in California of rising temperatures. Not “in future decades”, but for the last 115 years.

California, average temperature, January through August

California, average temperature, January through August

The graphic below from the 2009 Quadrennial Fire Review written for the U.S. Forest Service by the Brookings Institution, documents the “Lengthened fire season due to climate change”.

wildfire season length climate change

The orange bars show estimates of new fire season length by region. Graphic from the Quadrennial Fire Review published in 2008, titled “The Future of Wildland Fire Management” by the Brookings Institution.

Researchers are predicting that beginning 26 years from now the number of weeks in which very large fires could occur will increase by 400 to 600 percent in portions of the northern great plains and the Northwest. Many other areas in the West will see a 50 to 400 percent increase. The portions of California that have vegetation capable of supporting large fires will see increases of 50 to 300 percent or more.

If they are correct, the effects of climate change are not generations away. Firefighters starting out today will be dealing with this on a large scale during their careers.

Future Very Large Fires wildfires

The projected percentage increase in the number of “very large fire weeks”—weeks in which conditions are favorable to the occurrence of very large fires—by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). (NOAA)

It is our position that unusual weather for one day, a month, a year, or even a decade does not prove or disprove a long-term climate trend. So when a senator brings a snowball onto the Senate floor or a governor talks about this summer’s fires to prove their cases that climate change does not or does exist, both are over stating their “evidence”. (In the first example, to a ridiculous extent.)

Both gentlemen need to consider much more data, such as the average size of fires over the last few decades or the California temperatures over the last 115 years.

Average size of fires by decade, lower 49 states, 1990 - 2013

And yes, there are factors other than weather that affect the size of fires, including decades of fire suppression in some areas. But not all large fires have burned in areas that have not been visited by fire in 50+ years. A careful analysis can’t discount the effects we are experiencing now — higher temperatures and longer fire seasons.