The most recent effort to develop a better fire shelter for wildland firefighters produced nothing new, but don’t tell U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service Fire Safety Specialist Ted Mason the five-year research project was a bust.
"Absolutely not," Mason said. "I’m looking at it like we’ve proved that we did a really good job in 2002 when we created the shelter we’re currently using."
Mason chaired the National Wildfire Coordinating Group subcommittee charged with studying options for an updated fire shelter.
The thin, silica-impregnated tents laminated with aluminum foil are proven lifesavers.
It weighs 4.2 pounds and every federal, state and local wildland firefighter assigned to fire duty is required to carry one.
“The current fire shelter has been in place since 2002," Mason said. "We generally, on about a five-year cycle, try to reevaluate new materials and see if there are improvements that can be made to it."
Federal officials intended to replace the current fire shelter design following the deaths of 19 firefighters near Yarnell, Arizona in 2013.
“The Yarnell Hill Fire was pretty tragic because an entire Hotshot crew, the Granite Mountain Hotshot Crew, perished in that fire," Mason said. "They were all under fire shelters and the fire shelters didn’t help them in that particular case.”
With temperatures exceeding 2,200 degrees Fahrenheit with extreme turbulent air conditions, Mason notes no fire shelter could have protected that crew on June 30 of 2013.
But the teams responsible for designing a potential update to the current fire shelter wanted to improve its design.
To do that, they turned to the people who rely on them:
“We started by surveying all of the firefighters that we’re going to be asking to carry it," he said. "Over 3,800 responses came in as far as what ground, field-going personnel were looking for in a fire shelter – knowing that Yarnell Hill, we failed to provide a fire shelter that was going to survive those conditions – what were they looking for and what would they want.”
And according to Mason, most of the respondents said.
“We don’t want to carry a bigger and heavier fire shelter. It’s already too big and too bulky.”
Over half of respondents requested a lighter, more streamlined fire shelter that offers comparable protection to the existing design.
Thirty-five percent said they’d be satisfied with the same form-factor of the current shelter if it offered improved performance.
Six percent were happy with the existing shelter, five percent would have accepted a heavier, bulkier shelter if it offered more protection.
“We had one that we thought gave us the potential to give us more protection given the same weight and same bulk," Mason said. "But that particular shelter, although it performed really well in a table test, when we actually tried to fold and package it the way we would to wear-test it to put it on firefighters belts and let them carry it around, that’s where the material actually broke down.”
Other prototypes were bulkier but offered only marginally more protection. Field-testers were unimpressed.
Mason says that for now the existing 17-year-old fire shelter design still comes closest to that goldilocks combination of practical protection in a reasonably manageable form-factor.
“Yes, we can build a fire shelter that would protect us from any fire, but you’re gonna have to hire somebody specifically to follow each firefighter around to carry it. There is a practical point where if we’re going to be using it as line gear for people walking in the hills it does have a weight and bulk limitation that you’re goonna have to adhere to."
The government’s next official fire shelter test out is scheduled in another five years, but Mason says researchers are always interested in fielding innovative ideas and proven technology.