A History of the Wildland Fire Shelter

Amanda Delatorre |

A History of the Wildland Fire Shelter

Fire shelters have saved the lives of hundreds of people by providing portable refuges from blazing flames. This mandatory piece of protective equipment is used as a last resort by wildland firefighters when they become trapped by wildfires and can’t access their escape routes or safety zones. Because wildfires can quickly change directions and spread rapidly, having a shelter that can be easily deployed and utilized in an emergency is invaluable. Wildland fire shelters currently can’t protect firefighters from sustained contact with flames, but they can save lives by providing safety from radiant and convective heat and trapping breathable air. To learn about the evolution of these life-saving devices, consult this brief history of the wildland fire shelter.

The origin of fire shelters

The first known use of using a cover to provide shelter from fire began in 1804, when a small boy took shelter under a buffalo skin during a prairie fire. After the fire, the grass under the skin wasn’t burnt, and the boy survived. Captain William Clark recorded this incident in his journal, sparking the idea of what would eventually become modern fire shelters.

The first modern fire shelter

Many years later, in 1958, development for the first modern fire shelter began in Australia. This bell-shaped shelter was made from a laminate of aluminum foil and glass cloth. The bell shape was quickly changed to an A-frame design the next year. In the following years, Australia and the Forest Service’s Missoula Equipment Development Center (MEDC) collaborated on creating a fire shelter. By 1967, the MEDC had ordered thousands of A-frame fire shelters, which by then had a kraft paper liner. By 1977, the Forest Service had mandated carrying fire shelters following the death of three firefighters without shelters.

Issues and upgrades

Following the widespread use of fire shelters, several upgrades were implemented to resolve issues that occurred. For example, toxicity concerns arose in the late 1970s, leading to mandatory toxicity testing and mandates. These ensured that no adhesives that release toxins in heat were used to create fire shelters. In 1994, manufacturers began selling fire shelters in U-shaped bags with scored pull strips rather than as A-framed structures. Due to issues with pull strips separating before the bag was open, the shelters were upgraded to a higher-quality version in 2000. In 2002, many enhancements were made to the designs of fire shelters, including reinforced entrance holes, the inclusion of three laminates for enhanced protection, stronger deployment features, and a revised shape that featured a half-cylinder with rounded ends.

Today’s fire shelters

The current version of the fire shelter is the Model 2002, which is made from aluminized cloth laminated to fiberglass and shaped like a half-cylinder with rounded ends. Fire shelters have come a long way in providing enhanced protection for firefighters in emergency situations, but they still only offer around a 50 percent chance of survival when used as a last resort. As such, they should not be used as an alternative to safe firefighting procedures and practices.

If you’re in need of quality fire protection gear, The Supply Cache can help. We offer a wide variety of equipment, such as wildland boots, fire packs, helmets, and fire shelters for sale, to keep you safe. For more information regarding out products, contact us today.