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.

A Loop Fire survivor describes the disaster

It has been 49 years and three days since 12 wildland firefighters perished on the Loop Fire, November 1, 1966. The El Cariso Hotshots were constructing fireline on the Angeles National Forest in southern California when the fire blew up below them. Rich Leak, a Captain on the crew at the time, has written a description of the disaster in which he points out factors that led to the incident as well as some lessons learned. Below is a link to his account.

LoopFireRichLeakRevised

Loop fire survivor talks

Loop Fire 1966
Loop Fire, November 1, 1966

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has published the video below featuring Gerald Smith, a survivor of the 1966 Loop Fire on the Angeles National Forest in southern California visiting the site of the tragedy. The video is very powerful. Mr. Smith reads a letter from one of the other victims that was written while he was in the hospital shortly before he passed away. Mr. Smith also talks about his 20-year struggle after the burnover, dealing with the lingering effects and the eventual positive outcome.

 

On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in the checklist for downhill line construction, improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.

The El Cariso Hot Shots experienced another tragedy in 1959 when three members of the crew were entrapped and killed on the Decker Fire near Elsinore, California.

Loop fire, 43 years ago

On November 1, 1966, the El Cariso Hotshots were trapped by flames as they worked on a steep hillside in Pacoima Canyon on the Angeles National Forest.

Ten members of the crew perished on the Loop Fire that day. Another two members succumbed from burn injuries in the following days. Most of the nineteen members who survived were critically burned and remained hospitalized for some time.

Lessons learned from the Loop Fire resulted in the checklist for downhill line construction, improved firefighting equipment, better fire behavior training, and the implementation of new firefighter safety protocols.

Decker fire, 50 years ago today

On August 8, 1959 the El Cariso Hot Shots experienced the first of two fire tragedies the crew would be involved in. The fire was the Decker Fire located in the foothills above Lake Elsinore, California. Seven people were overrun by fire and six lost their lives. Three were members of the El Cariso Hotshot Crew.

In 1966 12 members of the crew were killed when they were entrapped on the Loop Fire.

Decker Fire graphicFor more info:

http://www.wildfirelessons.net/documents/Decker_Fire_1959.pdf