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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Forest Service Works To Redesign Fire Shelters

U.S. National Interagency Fire Center

Montana's active wildfire season is just around the corner. Every single federal, state and local wildland firefighter assigned to fire duty is required to carry a fire shelter. They’re thin, silica-impregnated tents laminated with aluminum foil, and are proven lifesavers. Now, the Forest Service is working on making them even better.

Last summer a raging wildfire trapped three firefighters in Northern California. Unpredictable and powerful winds quickly pushed the flames towards the men, one of whom recorded the incident on his cell phone.

"We better boogie..."

The order was given to deploy their fire shelters when it became clear they were trapped.

Those shelters saved the lives of all three men.

They’re only meant to be used when all other options have run out, and now, the Forest Service is working on making fire shelters even better.

The man leading the agency's project to redesign the shelter is in Missoula, and knows what it feels like to run out of options.

Tony Petrilli was one of the smokejumpers who fought the Fire on Colorado's Storm King Mountain in July of 1994.

That inferno killed 14 firefighters.

Petrilli spent about an hour-and-a-half under his shelter to protect himself. He doesn't like to talk about the experience.

"There's a realization of when you're shaking that shelter open that, 'Holy cow, I can't believe this is happening. I never thought it could ever happen to me.' I know that's what I said. I know that's what I hear from firefighters today that find themselves entrapped in that situation. I guess that's all I'd like to say about that."

Shelters protect firefighters by reflecting radiated heat while still providing a pocket of breathable air. The Forest Service reports they’ve saved over 320 lives and prevented almost 400 burn injuries; but they're not perfect.

Sometimes the flames and heat of today’s intense wildfires are more than the shelters were designed to withstand. Out of over 1,200 total shelter deployments, there have have been 41 fatalities.

Petrilli, with the Forest Service's Technology and Development Center in Missoula, says researchers are concentrating on three potential design alternatives.

"We're looking at heavier materials that will definitely increase the performance. Another area of concentration is the same weight/same bulk and see how much improvement can be made. We're also looking at lighter weight options that can match the performance of the current shelter."

A  variety of materials and designs are under consideration. Researchers are also looking outside Forest Service labs for assistance, including a partnership with NASA.

"They've been looking at pretty much the same idea for their future spacecraft. Instead of tiles that they paste onto the bottom of the space shuttle, they're looking at lightweight, foldable, deployable fabric structure that can offer that protection they need to go through an atmosphere," Petrelli explains.

It's tough to pin a specific price tag on the project this early in the development cycle. Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management Director, Tom Harbour says the Forest Service will spend whatever it takes to properly protect firefighters.

"The cost is worth the return. We're trying to get it right. We're trying to make sure that all the various criteria that those firefighters need: capability, durability, usability, sustainability, are met in this next generation of fire shelters,"  Harbour says.

Harbour says technological advances are important, but will never replace the skill it takes to make good decisions under pressure. The Forest Service Is also working with the U.S. Marine Corps to learn better strategies for coping with stress.

"Once you train and equip a young woman firefighter on the line, how do we allow that young lady to think optimally, or nearly optimally, so she never has to use that shelter."

Officials hope to have the next-gen fire shelter testing-process completed this year with final product alternatives presented in 2016.

Toni Petrilli says the new shelters may be on firefighters' hips or backpacks in time for the 2017 or 2018 fire season.

Edward O’Brien first landed at Montana Public Radio three decades ago as a news intern while attending the UM School of Journalism. He covers a wide range of stories from around the state.  
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