Wildfires are dangerous events that require brave individuals to fight and defeat them. Unfortunately, fires put up a good fight and often place wildland firefighters in intense situations where immediate protection is needed. In those instances, firefighters turn to specially designed tents that shield them from hazardous elements.
These items are required by law and have saved 300 lives since 1960. With wildfires on the rise worldwide, we must understand the tools wildland firefighters use to protect themselves and others. Read on to learn more about what fire shelters are and how to use them properly.
The Basics of Fire Shelters
As their name suggests, fire shelters protect trapped wildland firefighters from encroaching heat and flames. Grass wildfires are perhaps the most volatile and unpredictable form of fire, meaning chaos will ensue on the front lines. During this time, some firefighters may find themselves stuck inside the raging fire with no escape route. In these situations, their last resort is a Forest Service-mandated fire shelter.
Wildland firefighters carry these shelters in cases that attach easily to packs and other wearable equipment. Inside the case is a folded shelter made with aluminum foil, fiberglass, and woven silica. These combined materials allow firefighters to stay protected during short-lived grass fires—unfortunately, these shelters are not resistant to direct contact with flames. Instead, these last resorts can withstand 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit for up to a minute.
The main benefit of these fire shelters isn’t preventing flames but preventing toxic inhalation. The number one cause of firefighter fatalities is overexposure and inhalation of hot gasses. “Superheated air” can burn your airways instantly, causing blisters and swelling that may lead to asphyxiation. So even if firefighters are not near active fires, they may be in an environment full of toxic air supplies. Fire shelters are designed to trap breathable air and reflect harmful impurities, allowing firefighters to stay safe anywhere in the wilderness. As a bonus, fire shelters protect against convective heat and reflect radiant heat.
How To Properly Use Fire Shelters
Since time is of the essence in these wildfire situations, firefighters can easily slip into a shelter in approximately 25 seconds. Firefighters train for these scenarios relentlessly, including replicating high-speed wind conditions and low visibility. Basically, a trained wildland firefighter can deploy a fire shelter in their sleep.
Deploying your fire shelter is relatively simple, albeit very particular. A wildland firefighter’s carrying case often rests on their backpack or is attached to a harness, allowing for easy and efficient access. When ready, a firefighter will pull the shelter out of the carrying case and remove the hard plastic case and vinyl overwrap. Once removed, they give the shelter a quick shake, much like putting in a new garbage bag. Finally, they wrap their entire bodies in the shelter as they lie face-down on the ground.
It’s essential they get a complete seal from the superheat air outside. This might involve pushing their noses so hard into the ground that it creates a divot. However, you’d quickly and willingly break your nose if it meant preventing toxic inhalation or dangerous heat exposure. While wildland firefighters are always prepared to deploy their fire shelters, this protection method should never be the first action taken. It’s the last resort that increases your odds of survival but does not guarantee it. Instead, firefighters are also highly trained in a plethora of other techniques to help them avoid ever having to deploy a fire shelter. These skills include expert knowledge of fire characteristics, understanding of the surrounding environment, and best fire-fighting practices.
Brief History of Fire Shelters
The history of fire shelters is much more interesting than you may think and even features a unique origin story. It is said that, in 1804, a little boy avoided a raging prairie fire by hiding underneath a green buffalo skin—this was observed and recorded by Captain William Clark. However, it wasn’t until 1958 that Australia committed to designing a truly effective and practical fire shelter.
Their invention was bell-shaped and made with glass cloth and a laminate of aluminum, but it was quickly abandoned in favor of an A-frame design. Not long after, the Forest Service’s Missoula Equipment Development Center (known now as the Missoula Technology and Development Center) began intense fire shelter research and development, even borrowing ideas from Australia. By 1967, the Forest Service ordered its first batch of 6,000 fire shelters. These iterations featured aluminum laminate, glass cloth, and Kraft paper barrier inner liners (which were eliminated in 1974).
In 1977, three wildland firefighters lost their lives in Colorado’s Battlement Creek fire. They weren’t carrying their shelters at the time, leading to the Forest Service mandating all firefighters have one while on duty. The modern fire shelters we use today were developed in 2002 and feature a suitable carrying case.
What To Avoid
While modern-day fire shelters are truly a technological miracle, they have limitations. Sometimes, they don’t operate properly and put wildland firefighters’ lives in danger. The most common cause of these problems is using a damaged/poor-condition fire shelter. This happens when equipment isn’t receiving proper inspections before use. That’s why it’s essential that you review all of your safety gear before going on shift to ensure your fire shelter and other items are functional and dependable.
Fire shelters don’t have a definitive shelf life; instead, they’re good for one use. They cannot be used twice, so if you find yourself in a situation where you have had to use one, you’ll need to obtain a replacement.
Understanding what fire shelters are and how to use them is essential for any wildland firefighter. They’re often the difference between life and death during the most extreme wildfire situations. We at The Supply Cache want to ensure you’re protected when working, so please browse our fire shelter for sale and related products.