Is a Fire Shelter Safe?


Nineteen firefighters were killed in a rapidly advancing wildfire during a developing thunder storm cell, even after they all reportedly deployed fire shelters. The Granite Mountain Interagency Hotshots of Prescott Arizona, while trying to save a small housing subdivision (Glen Ilah) near Yarnell, Arizona, determined their safety zones were inadequate and entrapment was imminent. Initial reports are that the deployed fire shelters failed and the elite hotshot crew members were found huddled together in their shelters.

Are fire shelters, mandatory issued safety fire "tents" for emergency use in the United States, protective or a potential trap? Are there times when negative conditions overwhelm the situation to make it unsurvivable even with shelters? Should issued fire shelters be replaced by encouraging fire crews to always physically attempt escape? Should there be more effort to protect fire fighters before placing them in compromising deadly situations by command staff (if that is even possible)?

Prior to the Yarnell tragedy, only two U.S. firefighters had died while using fire shelters - now add 19. In any event, it is a sure bet that the final Yarnell Fire investigative report will have a major impact on how United States agencies use fire shelters the future.

The Case for Fire Shelters

The use of fire shelters has been encouraged as the primary piece of mandatory issued safety equipment for wildland firefighters in the United States since 1977. Deployment training for all frontline personnel is required annually.

It has been reported by firefighting agencies (including the U.S. Forest Service) that these shelters have saved the lives of more than 300 firefighters and have prevented hundreds of serious injuries. A new generation of fire shelter now offers improved protection from both radiant and convective heat.

The latest fire shelter design protects the fire fighter mostly by reflecting radiant heat and holding cool, breathable air inside. Every regulation shelter has an outer layer of aluminum foil bonded to an inside woven silica cloth. The foil reflects radiant heat and the silica material slows the passage of heat to the inside of the shelter. Another inner layer of aluminum foil laminated to fiberglass prevents heat from reradiating to the person inside the shelter. When these layers are sewn together, the air gap between them offers further insulation.

Deployment and Location of Fire Shelters

Even the latest fire shelter design has to be located and positioned in an appropriate environment for it to perform safely - and MUST NOT encounter direct flame. And there are many situations where a fire shelter should not be used and escape by other means is necessary.

The shelter should not be deployed in mountain saddles, under or around heavy brush or in topography that experiences updrafts. Avoiding draws that tunnel heat is critical even if you are on a road and stay away from flamable structures and vehicles. Never locate a fire shelter under a tree snag.

Always find bare, flat ground and locate the fire shelter in the center of that area. Roads and fire breaks are fine but avoid a draw or any topography where an updraft can occur. A drainage ditch on the uphill side of a road cut can be an effective deployment site unless it contains close fuels that could ignite and burn the shelter.

Constructing and entering you shelter correctly is critical! After removing your shelter from its case, throw your pack and any flammable objects far from the deployment area. Scrape away ground fuels, if you have enough time, in an area 4 by 8 feet or larger down to mineral soil. Enter the shelter as per the U.S. Forest Service manual - The New Generation of Fire Shelters with the understanding that this is done only under dire conditions that threaten life.

Canada Says No To Fire Shelters

Fire shelters are no longer used or issued as protective equipment in Canada according to the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre (CIFFC). The last province to stop deploying shelters was British Columbia in 2005. That decision was made with the support of a CIFFC safety committee "because the province's firefighters are never put in a situation where they would need to deploy a fire shelter". "Much of the terrain where wildfires occur in Canada is also densely forested" and assumed not appropriate for shelters as per a report from CBC News.

Canadian wildfire fighters are equipped and trained with the understanding that they must avoid putting themselves in harm's way to begin with. Not issuing a fire shelter means less bulk and cartable weight plus will not provide firemen with a false sense of security. In lieu of tents, firefighters are issued heat-resistant, light weight clothing and an escape plan. "The intent of the clothing is that if you do get into trouble, it will save you as you are leaving," says Marc Mousseau, chair of the fire equipment working group for the Canadian Interagency Forest Fire Centre. Canadian fire officials also say that "to stay safe, wildfire fighters rely far less on their protective equipment, and far more on communication and escape planning."
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