New fire shelters are on backorder at many suppliers

One manufacture said shelters ordered today will be shipped in March, 2023

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

Anyone attempting to purchase a new wildland fire shelter may find that many retail fire equipment suppliers do not have any in stock. Of the eight online suppliers we checked, five had them on back order. The three that estimated when they would be available said it would be four to eight weeks.

I called Anchor Industries, the larger of the two companies that make fire shelters, to find out why. I asked John Montrastelle, Government Sales Manager, why there was difficulty in keeping them in stock at retailers.

“Most dealers buy from me,” Mr. Montrastelle said. “We are in our second year of another record fire shelter season. I mean, it is ginormous. My lead time right now on fire shelters is March 3, 2023. If a dealer was to order today, it’s March 3. I have got thousands of fire shelter orders in house here, and we churn out 500 a week. We need to be making twice that just to catch up with the demand. Just two years ago, my lead time, no matter the quantity, because I had a decent amount of inventory, was usually five days or less.”

“We just have a high demand for them right now, which has created a longer lead time from us,” Mr. Montrastelle said from his office in Indiana. “It’s not so much the raw goods, it’s more of a labor problem. We just need to figure out how to add a second shift and get another 15 people that are good workers that will stay with us. And sometimes it’s not just the money. It’s crazy.”

Why are there shortages?

Mr. Montrastelle thought the increased demand was partly due to more firefighters being hired and an increase in acres burned.

Another likely reason is the advisory issued March 16, 2022 by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Equipment Technology Committee. It reported that in reviewing shelter deployments in 2020, it was determined that shelters made prior to 2006 “function as intended” but may experience greater delamination between the silica cloth and aluminum foil when deployed.

The scary looking two-page advisory document, surrounded by yellow and gray slashes, appeared to indicate it was an urgent concern. But surprisingly, there was no recommendation in the NWCG advisory. It didn’t say to replace the pre-2006 shelters. It took the timid step of “providing technical information to support agency-specific decision-making regarding replacement of fire shelters manufactured prior to 2006.”

However the meeting notes posted online by the NWCG Equipment Technology Committee after their meeting of November 2-3, 2021 had been more definitive, and used clear text:

“Recommend discontinue the use of shelters made prior to January 2006 via an equipment advisory.”

But that got watered down in the March 16 Advisory.

The “new generation” of fire shelter first became available in 2003 and since then there have been revisions in addition to those made in 2006. For example, meeting notes from the October 28, 2021 NWCG Fire Shelter and Personal Protective Equipment Subcommittee mentioned that “Fluorine and phosphorus tested too high in recent materials test, concern about off-gassing inside the shelter.” Toxicity thermal testing was scheduled at University of Alberta, Canada. Production of the shelter was paused, and by the January 27, 2022 meeting manufacturing was moving forward again.

At that meeting it was mentioned that “State programs have responded that they may not be able to quickly get [the pre-2006 shelters] out of circulation.”

We asked agencies if they had shortages

In light of the statement above that states will have problems replacing the pre-2006 shelters, we did some checking, and called several agencies on the west coast to ask if they were having difficulty acquiring fire shelters.

Thomas Kyle-Milward, a Communications Manager for the Washington State Department of Natural Resources, told Wildfire Today that they have decided that they need to upgrade to the latest version of the shelter. Like many state and federal land management agencies, they order their shelters from the Defense Logistics Agency, which which is one of the 282 fire-related items handled by the DLA. Mr. Kyle-Milward said 900 shelters have been on back order at the DLA for a couple of months.

We also checked with the US Forest Service. “We are not experiencing a shortage of fire shelters,” said Stanton Florea, Fire Communications Specialist. “The inventory of fire shelters in the National Interagency Support Caches is close to maximum levels used for planning.”

Jessica Prakke, Public Affairs Officer for the Oregon Department of Forestry, said, “ODF does not have a shortage of fire shelters. Our fire cache and districts work diligently during the off season to stock up on supplies so that when we are in fire season, our ordering is minimal to avoid potential shortages. Hopefully, the projection of a March 2023 fulfillment of current orders holds true.”

A spot check of a couple of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection regions found no shortage of shelters.

Update at 9:51 a.m. EDT August 6, 2022. One of our readers told us that the warehouse manager in North Carolina reached out to let them know that they we were down to eight new shelters and were unable to stock up. Some  other southern states also have shelters on back order.

New fire shelter prototypes tested

Four new designs remain within survival limits longer

fire shelter design testing
Layout of field equipment. TC, thermocouple trees; shelters in random plot location, and anemometer. Photo was from Mount Palomar Test 1.

By Laura Oleniacz, North Carolina State University

North Carolina State University researchers found that four new designs for shelters to protect firefighters trapped in wildfires could increase the survival time inside the shelters compared with the current industry standard. In lab simulations of wildfire burn-overs — where a wildfire sweeps over a group of trapped firefighters or equipment — temperatures inside the shelters remained within survival limits for longer, and the shelters took longer to break open.

Researchers hope their findings from the lab, as well as from field tests conducted across North America, could spur the development of new, better shelters. In addition, they hope the findings will inform new standards for shelter design and testing.

“For the wildland firefighter, deploying a shelter is the last thing they want to do — it’s the final resort, the last line of defense,” said study co-author Roger Barker, the Burlington Distinguished Professor of Textile Technology at NC State and the director of the Textile Protection and Comfort Center (TPACC). “While there’s no such thing as ‘fire-proof,’ what we’re trying to do is to buy more time. We were able to demonstrate our shelters could increase the time to failure — time that could be critical for survival.”

One problem with the industry standard shelter is that the aluminum outer layer will melt in contact with direct flame.

“In light of the failure mechanisms of shelters that we observed during wildland fires, we thought we could develop better shelters that provide enhanced protection by incorporating an inner heat-blocking barrier and additional thermal insulation into the construction,” said the study’s lead author Joseph Roise, professor of forestry and environmental resources at NC State. “We know we can make a better shelter.”

With that goal in mind, the researchers designed two leading prototypes and two lighter versions weighing less than 5 pounds. They added insulating materials, and experimented with different seam designs to keep them from falling apart.

fire shelter design testing
Photo of PyroDome: top left shows the shelter layout, burners and heat sensors; top right is the dome to concentrate flames and turbulence; bottom is an interior view of the shelter during test, showing small thermocouple tree.

In the TPACC lab, researchers tested the designs against the industry standard in a test chamber called the PyroDome Turbulent Flame Fire Shelter Test System. They blasted the shelters with direct flame from propane burners for 60 seconds, and measured how long it took the temperature at the floor of the shelters to reach 302 degrees Fahrenheit, the temperature threshold for survival. They also set up cameras inside PyroDome to see when the inner layer of the shelters would break open.

All of the prototypes had improved survival metrics compared to the standard, which reached the survival limit in less than 40 seconds. Meanwhile, the temperature in one of their designs was nowhere near the survival limit temperature at 60 seconds.

fire shelter design testing
Internal and external temperature profiles (Prototype 4, field test 1). For every test and for every shelter, there is a temperature profile. The upper horizontal line is the melting point of aluminium. Summing the time of both TC1 and TC4 above that line gives us ∑t660. The lower solid line is the internal shelter temperature 5.1 cm (2 in) from ground. The difference between peak and ambient temperature gives us ΔT. R660 = ΔT[∑t660]−1 is the insulation performance index.
The researchers also tested the shelters’ performance in variety of conditions in controlled burns in Canada, California, North Carolina and South Dakota. However, they found the field tests were not reliable enough to draw statistically significant conclusions because of wind, fuel and fire conditions.

“We went all over North America to find different fire conditions that would give different types of fire exposures,” Barker said. “What we found is there is so much variability in the field test, confirming how useful it was for us to have PyroDome.”

fire shelter design testing
Photo of Prototype 4 in Field Test 1. Left shows 99% exterior damage and right shows interior free of damage.

The two tests in southern California had the best burn conditions, and researchers saw one of their prototypes performed well in a burn-over. In a test in South Dakota, researchers witnessed shelter failures when grass roots caught fire to spread under the walls inside the shelter. That underscored the importance of fully clearing the area around the shelter, and even scraping down underneath them to remove all organic material.

“If you have a sample of two, you can’t make any statistical comparisons,” Roise said. “But we did see that after the test in California, one of our best-performing prototypes got the full brunt of the fire. It was totally burned on the outside, but the inside was undamaged.”

fire shelter design testing
Summary of peak internal fire shelter temperatures at 5cm (2 in).

The new findings could give manufacturers and people developing these shelters a new target to shoot for in terms of both how to test them and minimal performance requirements, according to Barker.

The study, “Field and full-scale laboratory testing of prototype wildland fire shelters,” was published online in the International Journal of Wildland Fire. In addition to Barker and Roise, other authors include John Williams, a former research assistant in forestry and environmental resources at NC State, and John Morton-Aslanis, a research assistant in TPACC. The study was funded by the DHS FEMA Assistance to Firefighters Grant Program.

(All of the images are from the IJWF study)

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

Fire shelters made before 2006 may delaminate more than newer versions

Confirmed by testing and actual use in entrapments

Pre-2006 Fire Shelter
Pre-2006 fire shelters may experience greater delamination between the silica cloth and aluminum foil when deployed.

The National Wildfire Coordinating Group’s Equipment Technology Committee has issued an advisory about fire shelters. Actual use on fire entrapments confirmed by testing shows that shelters manufactured before 2006 “function as intended” but may experience greater delamination between the silica cloth and aluminum foil when deployed.

The U.S. Forest Service National Technology and Development Program detected differing levels of fire shelter degradation during two separate entrapments in 2020 where fire shelters were used. Further investigation revealed that those manufactured prior to 2006 showed more degradation.

The NWCG advisory does not describe how serious the delamination is, or the differences in temperature and effects on a person inside who is hoping the device will save their life. Nor does it take the obvious step of recommending any actions that should be taken or not taken, such as discontinuing use of the pre-2006 models. It only says the advisory “provides technical information to support agency-specific decision-making regarding replacement of fire shelters manufactured prior to 2006.” The fact that they issued the advisory, and surrounded the document with yellow and gray slashes (see below), promotes the assumption that it is an urgent concern.

Fire Shelter $326
Fire shelter, from the 2019 Federal Defence Logistics Agency Wildland Fire Equipment catalog.

The failure to take a stand on this important safety issue could be because the agencies do not want to be forced to spend the money to buy new shelters. They are listed in the 2019 Federal Defence Logistics Agency Wildland Fire Equipment catalog starting at $326 for the regular size — without the case. Purchased on the open market the costs are considerably higher. I found prices ranging from $441 to $595.

The advisory is below. Click the arrow at the bottom-left to see the photos on the second page.

Fire Shelter Advisory 3-16-2022

Firefighters deploy fire shelters at the Glass Fire

September 30, 2020  |  3:34 p.m. PDT

Fire Shelter deployment, September 27, 2020

CAL FIRE reports that two firefighters deployed fire shelters at the Glass Fire September 27, 2020. The individuals were not injured, but several transport support vehicles were damaged.

The fire has burned over 50,000 acres in California’s North Bay near Santa Rosa and Calistoga.

To see all articles on Wildfire Today about the Glass Fire, including the most recent, click here.

Crew on North Complex in California overrun by fire deploys fire shelters

And, an update on the shelter deployment at the Dolan Fire

Map of the North Complex, Claremont & Bear Fires
Map of the North Complex, Claremont & Bear Fires 11:12 a.m. PDT Sept 11, 2020.

A firefighting hand crew was overrun by the fire they were fighting September 9 and had to deploy their fire shelters. It happened on the Claremont/Bear Fire, two merged blazes that are part of the North Complex.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection explained that the fire  became unpredictable due to erratic weather and dry fuel conditions. The agency said the personnel were “virtually unharmed except for two minor injuries.” The incident is under review.

Fire Shelter Test
Fire Shelter Tests in Canada, June, 2015.

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. The shelters can resist radiant heat, and if the person inside can seal the edges under their body, convective heat as well, but there are limits. Many firefighters have used the devices successfully, but others have been killed inside them.

The North Complex has burned 252,534 acres east of Oroville, California. Approximately 1,000 structures have been destroyed and 10 civilians have been killed. Resources assigned include 73 hand crews, 18 helicopters, 254 fire engines, 76 dozers, and 98 water tenders for a total of 3,108 personnel.

On September 5, three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the blaze, fire officials said.

September 8 on the Dolan Fire south of Big Sur, California, another crew of firefighters was entrapped and deployed their fire shelters. Updated information from the U.S. Forest Service is slightly different from what was originally released shortly after the incident. Andrew Madsen, an information officer for the fire, explained that of the 14 that were entrapped, three were flown to Community Regional Hospital in Fresno. One was initially in critical condition and the other two were in serious condition. As of today, September 11, the two that were serious have been released, and the critically injured individual is much better and is expected to be released in a day or two. Mr. Madsen said some of the other 11 members of the crew had “smoke inhalation” issues, but were evaluated at the scene and are OK. The crew was attempting to protect the Forest Service’s Nacimiento Fire station as the blaze approached.

Nacimiento Station
Nacimiento Station, satellite photo, September 7, 2018.

Update: September 20, 2020:

North Complex burnover
North Complex burnover

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

15 firefighters on Dolan Fire became entrapped by the fire and deployed fire shelters

One injury is critical and another is serious, the U.S. Forest Service reported

September 8, 2020  |  5:05 p.m. PDT

Map of the Dolan Fire
Map of the Dolan Fire. The red line was the perimeter at 2 a.m. PDT September 8, 2020. The white line was the perimeter about 26 hours earlier. Red shading represents intense heat when the fire was mapped.

Fifteen firefighters attempting to prevent a structure from burning in a California wildfire were entrapped and overrun by the fire, the U.S. Forest Service announced today.

Two firefighters were injured, one critically and the other seriously, the release said. Both patients were transported by Life Flight to Community Regional Hospital in Fresno.

(Update September 11, 2020: New information from the U.S. Forest Service is slightly different from what was originally released shortly after the incident. Those new details are in an article published Sept. 11 about another crew that had to deploy fire shelters.)

It occurred at the Dolan Fire at about 8:31 a.m., September 8, 26 air miles southeast of Big Sur.

The firefighters deployed the fire shelters they carry for this type of situation.

The Forest Service said the incident occurred while the personnel were defending the Nacimiento Station from the approaching fire.

The release from the Forest Service implied more than two of the 15 personnel may have been injured to some degree. Here is an excerpt:

A shelter deployment involving fifteen firefighters from the Dolan Fire occurred approximately at 0831 on Tuesday, Sept 8, 2020, in the vicinity of Nacimiento Station. These dedicated firefighters received injuries including burns and smoke inhalation while defending the Nacimiento Station on Dolan Fire on the Los Padres National Forest in California. Nacimiento Station was destroyed.

When a fixed wing aircraft mapped the Dolan Fire at 2 a.m. PDT September 8 about six hours before the incident, the fire was 74,591 acres, more than twice the size mapped the previous night when it was 36,213 acres. The heat sensing equipment detected intense heat at the fire’s edge at 2 a.m., 0.7 miles northwest of Nacimiento Station.

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.

Three days before, on September 5, three firefighters on the Bridger Foothills Fire northeast of Bozeman, Montana were forced to deploy and take refuge in their fire shelters when their safety became compromised by the proximity of the blaze, fire officials said.

Nacimiento Station
Nacimiento Station, satellite photo, September 7, 2018.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Al and Tom.