What are fire shelters and are they really safe?
A month after Roger Roth, a McCall smokejumper, explained to his older brother Jim who is an aerospace engineer, what a fire shelter was, Jim never thought he would be receiving a call one day telling him that his brother perished in one while fighting the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs in Colorado. When he first heard about the fire shelter, Jim thought about it as a death trap.
Better Fire Shelters Needed
Back in 1977, firefighters have been required by federal officials to carry fire shelters as a result of the tragic incident that killed three firefighters fighting the 1976 Battlement Creek Fire in Colorado. The firefighters didn’t have their fire shelters with them thinking there was no need for them. So when the winds changed, the firefighters were directly exposed to the flames and extremely high temperatures eventually causing their death. Investigators revealed that had they been in the shelters, they could have survived.
Fire shelters are deployed when a firefighter finds himself in a situation that he needs to protect himself from the flames. The firefighter will unzip the plastic pack containing the shelter and step into it as he lays down with the shelter completely surrounding him with breathable air trapped inside the shelter.
How Do Fire Shelters Work?
The fire shelters consist of a double-layered blanket made of aluminum foil, Nomex and Kevlar to act as shield from direct heat. The shelters are designed to reflect almost 95% of radiant heat and withstand up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit of direct heat (flames). Anything beyond this temperature will cause the shelter to melt, defeating its original purpose of protecting the firefighter from the flames or heat.
Deploying Fire Shelters
Fire fighters are trained to deploy the shelter in less than 30 seconds. The shelters are carried by the firefighters – hanging by their waist. Older fire fighters cautioned the newbies to only use the shelters as a last resort. A lot of firefighters receive their agency-issued shelters with a promise not to ever use one.
The grieving brother of Roger Roth felt the need to do something about the fire shelters. He started asking around about fire shelters. He even visited the Missoula Technology and Development Center (MTDC) as this is the agency’s top source for information and technology on wildfire resources. Unfortunately, his quest for information only gave him more reasons to find a better alternative to the existing fire shelters.
Designing A Better Fire Shelter
He created a group of volunteers consisting of top flame resistant experts and one from NASA whose job is to design a better fire shelter. They built prototypes, collected data and tested their shelters until they felt ready to show to MTDC what they have worked on. The MTDC clearly did not share their enthusiasm.
A 2000-Degree Resistant Fire Shelter
Jim Roth was frustrated by the reception but decided to turn his research into a company and created Stork King Mountain Technologies, naming it after the mountain that killed his younger brother. Their new fire shelter could withstand 2,000 degrees of direct heat and could last for several minutes before breaking apart when hit by direct flame. The MTDC shelter breaks down within 20 seconds.
But despite the superiority of his shelter, the MTDC version of an upgraded fire shelter was selected by the panel consisting of the Forest Service, US National Park Service and the US Bureau of Land Management. Apparently, Roth’s 2000-degree resistant fire shelter is too heavy for the firefighter to bring along while suppressing flames.
Is the US Forest Service using a better and safer fire shelter now?