13 videos about fire shelter deployments on wildland fires

fire shelter
Fire shelter, with one side removed to show the position of a firefighter. USFS.

Fire shelters are small foldable pup tent-like fire resistant devices that a wildland firefighter can unfold and climb into if there is no option for escaping from an approaching inferno. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has put together a playlist of 13 videos about deployment of shelters. The next time you have an extra three or four hours, check it out.

Below is a screenshot of the list:

fire shelter video
Playlist of videos about fire shelter deployments. WFLLC.

New versions of fire shelters to be tested this year

Five years ago after 19 firefighters were killed while fighting the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona on June 30, 2013 the U.S. Forest Service said they were going to move up the planned revision of the fire shelters that failed to be effective when used by the Granite Mountain Hotshots that day. The redesign has now progressed to the point where it will be tested by 60 firefighters this year.

Below is information released by the National Interagency Fire Center about the project.

This summer, a total of 60 wildland firefighters will carry one of four new fire shelter prototypes for “wear testing” as part of the ongoing “Fire Shelter Project Review” that was initiated in 2014 to identify possible improvements to the fire shelter system.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) Fire Shelter Subcommittee, which is comprised of federal, state, and local wildland firefighters, wildfire safety specialists, fire management officers, and other fire shelter users, selected the four new fire shelter prototypes for wear testing. The USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program, which administers the Fire Shelter Project Review, will issue a total of 60 prototypes of four different new fire shelter designs that have shown improved performance in lab tests to wildland firefighters to evaluate durability. The wildfire environment is very rugged and fire shelters must be carried by wildland firefighters for years and still be functional when needed.

Two of the new fire shelter prototypes are designed for ground firefighters and 20 of each of these prototypes will be issued to Interagency Hotshot Crew members for wear testing. The other two new fire shelter prototypes, which have been determined to be too bulky for ground firefighters, will be tested by equipment operators. Ten of each of the bulkier prototypes will be issued. The National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA) and the USDA Forest Service have a cooperative work agreement for this project. Two of the prototype fire shelters are NASA designs.

“The biggest job that a fire shelter has to do is be carried around by a wildland firefighter all day, every day, all season long,” said Tony Petrilli, Fire Shelter Review Leader with the USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program. “That doesn’t lend itself to the use of a lot of materials that can withstand high temperatures because of weight, bulk, durability and toxicity.”

The current fire shelter, which has been in use nationwide by all wildland firefighters since 2010, offers 54 seconds of survivability in lab tests. The current and previous versions of fire shelters have saved the lives of hundreds of wildland firefighters since the 1960s. The four new fire shelter prototypes that will be wear tested this summer offer increased protection, but two of the four are also bulkier and heavier. The backpacks that wildland firefighters carry weigh an average of 45 pounds. Adding weight and bulk to the fire shelter increases daily physiological stress on wildland firefighters. A 2014 survey of over 3,800 wildland firefighters indicated that they prefer a lighter fire shelter that matches the performance of the current fire shelter over a more protective fire shelter with additional weight and bulk.

Over the last four years, the USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program evaluated and tested hundreds of potential fire shelter materials and designs submitted by 23 different organizations from all over the world. The materials and designs were evaluated on weight, bulk, durability and toxicity, which are critical to determine suitability for use in fire shelters. Suitable materials were tested in a small-scale flame test to determine material strength, durability, flammability, and thermal performance. Materials that showed promise in the small-scale test were then constructed into fire shelters and tested in a full-scale, direct flame test to measure the performance of the overall fire shelter design.

After completion of the wear tests, the USDA Forest Service National Technology and Development Program will evaluate the results and conduct a final round of full-scale direct flame testing to ensure the four new fire shelter prototypes are still able to perform after being carried by ground firefighters and equipment operators over the summer. The final results will be presented to the NWCG Fire Shelter Subcommittee which will make a recommendation on whether to adopt one or more of the new fire shelter prototypes or to continue to use the existing fire shelter.

Wildland firefighters are trained to consider fire shelters as a last resort and to avoid situations that can lead to entrapment. As with the current fire shelter, it is likely that none of the four new fire shelter prototypes can ensure survival in all wildfire conditions. Nationwide, in 2017, wildland firefighters deployed fire shelters on two separate incidents when they were caught in fire entrapment situations, all three wildland firefighters survived.

Researchers testing fire shelter prototypes on South Dakota prescribed burns

Above: Left to right: Bobby Williams, Nick Mink/BLM, Blake Stewart/USFWS, and Joe Roise inspect the fire shelter model currently used by firefighters, which was included in the field test for comparative purposes. Photo courtesy  Great Plains Fire Management Zone 

North Carolina State University researchers this week began field testing new fire shelter prototypes during prescribed fire operations in South Dakota.

About a year after the deaths of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots from the 2013 Yarnell Hill Fire, the U.S. Forest Service entered into a collaborative agreement with the NASA Langley Research Center. The goal: to examine potential improvements to fire shelter performance. University researchers also received a FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant to develop new material that improved existing fabric technology and enhanced current fire shelters.

Researchers from North Carolina State’s College of Textiles worked with the Department of Forestry and Environmental Resources to study and offer up potential improvements. 

Until this week, those efforts were generally confined to the university’s lab. But researchers joined an East River Fire Training Exchange training crew for burn operations in eastern South Dakota to test a new fire shelter prototype.

“The whole project is extremely important because it can save lives across the nation,” Professor Joe Roise said in a news release, posted to InciWeb. “That’s the bottom line: saving lives.”

North Carolina State University Joe Roise (foreground) and Bobby Williams (background) set up their fire shelter test site within the Eyecamp prescribed fire area. The sensor poles shown here measure and record the temperature at 2, 4, 6, and 8 feet in height as the fire passes through the area. Photo courtesy Great Plains Fire Management Zone.
North Carolina State University Joe Roise (foreground) and Bobby Williams (background) set up their fire shelter test site within the Eyecamp prescribed fire area. The sensor poles shown here measure and record the temperature at 2, 4, 6, and 8 feet in height as the fire passes through the area. Photo courtesy Great Plains Fire Management Zone.

Operations are taking place this week in the Madison Wetland Management District.

Field testing is likely to continue in coming weeks and months. The shelter models will be tested in fires on Virginian marshland, north Florida pine forests and timber throughout Canada’s Northwest Territories.

Burn Boss Blake Stewart/USFWS (left) and Firing Boss Nick Mink/BLM (right) walk out to the fire shelter test site after the fire has passed.
Burn Boss Blake Stewart/USFWS (left) and Firing Boss Nick Mink/BLM (right) walk out to the fire shelter test site after the fire has passed. Photo courtesy Great Plains Fire Management Zone.


Report released on entrapment of six firefighters on the Cedar Fire in Arizona

Above: Fire whirl on the Cedar Fire, June 28, 2016, around the time of the entrapment. Screen grab from the video.

A report has been released on the entrapment of six firefighters that occurred on the Cedar Fire south of Show Low, Arizona June 28, 2016.

The firefighters were part of the Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew (NIHC) that remained along with two Type 6 engines and possibly one other crew after the Type 1 Incident Management Team was released the previous day. The assignment of half the crew, nine firefighters, was to “monitor” a part of the southwest side of the fire that had six miles of uncontained fire edge. The other half was working on the southeast side.

Three of the nine personnel on the southwest side served as lookouts while the remaining six were monitoring and checking the fire edge. When a very large fire whirl developed near the six, they realized their escape route was cut off, and took refuge in a previously burned area. The ground fuels had burned, but the canopy was still intact. As the fire approached they deployed their fire shelters, remaining in them for about 30 minutes.

cedar fire entrapment site
The entrapment site at the Cedar Fire.

After the fire whirl subsided, the squad members were able to hike out to staged vehicles. They were transported in three ambulances, medically evaluated, and transported to Summit Hospital in Show Low, Arizona where they were evaluated. Two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and all were released by 10 p.m. that evening.

The report says the personnel deployed and entered the shelters just as they had practiced several times in training, and the devices worked as designed. There were no difficulties, as reported at other entrapments, with the PVC bags becoming soft and difficult to open.

Thankfully there were no serious injuries and the training the firefighters had received paid off.

But there are a number of interesting facts about what occurred before the entrapment

Resources on the fire

On June 27, the day before the entrapment, the Type 1 Incident Management Team issued their final update on the 45,977-acre fire just before they were released later that day. Below is a portion of the document.

cedar fire update

The report claims the Type 1 Team recommended that the number of personnel assigned be reduced on Tuesday June 28 to about 400. But on Monday, June 27 all firefighters except for two Type 6 engines were released. With a 70 percent chance of rain in the weather forecast, on Tuesday the local agency decided to replace the Type 1 Team with a Type 4 Incident Commander, two Type 6 engines, and one or two hand crews. The crew(s) had to be re-mobilized on Tuesday after being released. Some aircraft were also assigned on Tuesday.

Video of the large fire whirl

Weather on Tuesday, the day of entrapment

About 20 minutes before the 2:45 p.m. entrapment the weather at the fire was 95 degrees, 21 percent relative humidity, with a 7 to 10 mph wind out of the south. Although “numerous” people observed dust devils and fire whirls before the large fire whirl formed, there was no discussion about modifying fire suppression tactics. Dust devils can be an indicator of the potential for extreme fire behavior.

cedar fire entrapment
Fire whirl on the Cedar Fire, June 28, 2016. Screen grab from the video.

NASA’s report on developing an improved fire shelter is like the last episode of The Sopranos

In this video that NASA published today the agency explains their role in working with the U.S. Forest Service in developing a fire shelter that would hopefully increase the survival chances of a wildland firefighter entrapped in a vegetation fire. NASA is looking at materials they have used or plan to use on spacecraft that could reflect heat, provide some insulation from the outside temperatures which can exceed 2,000 degrees F, is thin and flexible enough to be folded and easily carried, is durable enough to be carried by tactical athletes for years, and weighs less than five pounds. That’s tough criteria.

They have been working on this for about a year, which we have covered here and here. When I saw that they had just published this video, I assumed they would report on their progress, saying perhaps that they had selected a new very promising space age material and would be make a bunch of prototypes for rigorous testing. But no. In the five-minute video they simply say they are looking at materials.

Maybe I’m naive, thinking that when the vast resources of NASA are used to design a fairly straightforward product with no circuit boards or interplanetary radios, after a year their scientists could report at least SOME progress.

The video simply stops after five minutes and 18 seconds. There is no conclusion, no timetable is laid out, and there is no cause for celebration or hope. The video just ends. Like the final episode of The Sopranos.

The Sopranos
The last scene in “The Sopranos” series finale.

A few more details released about fire shelter deployment on the Cedar Fire

On Sunday the Bureau of Indian Affairs released a “72-hour report” that contains a few more details about the entrapment of six firefighters and deployment of their fire shelters on the Cedar Fire south of Show Low, Arizona.

The new information includes mentions of a large fire whirl and three lookouts that were posted.

Below is the press release version of the 72-hour report. The formal memo-style document is HERE. They contain approximately the same information.


“On June 28, a large fire whirl formed near six members of the Navajo Interagency Hotshot Crew (IHC), entrapping them. In response to the intense heat, flying ash and woody debris, the firefighters deployed their fire shelters.

Throughout the 15 minute event, the crew maintained radio communication with each other and agency personnel. Aviation and safety resources were immediately dispatched to assist the crew.

After the fire whirl passed, the IHC walked out of the fire area and were transported to Summit Healthcare in Show Low, Arizona. Two firefighters were treated for smoke inhalation and all six firefighters were released from the hospital that evening. After the crew was released, a Critical Incident Stress Management Team was made available to the crew.

The Bureau of Indian Affairs initiated an Interageny Serious Accident Investigation (SAI) that evening. On June 30, the SAI Team members, led by Clark Richins, Team Leader, Bureau of Indian Affairs, reported to Western Region, Fort Apache Agency. Members of the SAI Team include: Chief Investigator, Safety Officer, Personal Protective Equipment Specialist, Long Term Fire Analyst, Hotshot Crew Representative, Public Information Officer, Writer/ Editor, and Regional and National Agency Liaisons.

The investigation will collect evidence, which includes conducting personnel interviews, inspecting equipment and analyzing photographs, weather and voice data. On June 30, the SAI Team completed their interviews of the IHC, which allowed the crew to return home.

According to the National Wildfire Coordinating Group Terminology Glossary, a fire whirl is a spinning vortex column of ascending hot air and gases rising from a fire and carrying aloft smoke, debris, and flame. Fire whirls may range in size from less than one foot to over 500 feet in diameter and have the intensity of a small tornado.

Prior to the event, the crew was working along the western flank of the uncontained fireline where they had previously been assigned for several days. At 12:00p.m three nearby lookouts observed low intensity surface fire, but by 2:00p.m., as the day got warmer, the fire behavior increased. These lookouts and an additional firefighter scouting the fireline witnessed the large fire whirl.

While managing wildland fires is inherently dangerous, all firefighters are trained to minimize the risk they take on every assignment. In the rare circumstance firefighters are faced with an impending entrapment, they are trained to consider all options to insure the safety of all crew members. This includes deploying fire shelters for protection from smoke, heat, and embers. The Navajo Interageny Hotshot Crew executed their training, which resulted in a successful outcome to a hazardous wildfire anomaly.

As a highly reliable organization, the wildland fire community strives to learn and transfer lessons learned on a continual basis. In the spirit of this culture, the BIA Western Region will provide the Factual Report to the Lessons Learned Center when the Report is finalized.”


Thanks and a tip of the hat goes out to Jonah.