TWIN FALLS, Idaho – When Roger Roth first explained what a fire shelter was to his brother, Jim told his younger sibling never to get in one.
“Don’t trust your life in this thing,” Jim, an aerospace engineer, told Roger, a McCall smokejumper. “It sounds like a death trap.”
But just one month later, Jim received a phone call that would forever change his world. His 29-year-old brother was killed fighting the 1994 South Canyon fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. He died inside a fire shelter.
Federal officials began requiring firefighters to carry fire shelters in 1977. The mandate went into place after three firefighters died in the 1976 Battlement Creek fire in Colorado.
While suppressing the flames, the firefighters left their fire shelters back at base camp, thinking they wouldn’t need them. When the winds changed, however, they were exposed to the heat and flames.
Investigations after the fire showed the firefighters could have survived – had they used fire shelters.
Since then, the U.S. Forest Service made several improvements to what was first used in the 1970s, but officials in and out of the agency have repeatedly raised questions about the shelters’ effectiveness, particularly when direct flame hits it.
If a firefighter finds himself where he needs to deploy a shelter, he must drop his pack, unzip and shake the shelter out. He must then step into the shelter and lie down with the shelter completely surrounding him to trap breathable air inside. Some firefigthers describe this action grimly as “shake and bake.”
The shelters are made of a double-layered blanket with materials like aluminum foil, Kevlar and Nomex to shield firefighters from radiant and direct heat.
How do they work? Shelters reflect almost 95 percent of radiant heat, or heat coming from the sun. With direct heat in the form of flames, the shelter can withstand 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything hotter and the shelter begins to melt and no longer protects the firefighter.
The shelters – weighing about 4.4 pounds – are packed into a plastic case that hangs from the waist. Firefighters train to deploy a shelter in less than 30 seconds, but supervisors warn firefighters to deploy them only as a last resort. Many firefighters accept their fire shelters promising to never use one.
Still grieving his brother’s death weeks after the South Canyon fire, Jim Roth began searching for as much information on fire shelters as he could find.
He went to the Missoula Technology and Development Center, the U.S. Forest Service’s top source for information and technology on wildfire resources, but found nothing.
“No one could tell me how long the shelters would last in what temperatures or if they could withstand direct heat,” he said. “They could only tell me they were using the same shelter that had been issued in 1977.”
Roth gathered a volunteer group of the nation’s top flame-resistance experts, including one from NASA, to begin designing a better fire shelter.
They built prototypes and collected data and by November 1994, they invited Missoula Technology and Development Center officials to look at their work.
“They said, ‘Thank you, but we’re the experts,’ ” Roth said. “They wanted nothing to do with us.”
Discouraged but not defeated, Roth decided to turn his fire shelter research into a company. He named it Storm King Mountain Technologies, named after the mountain where his brother died.
For years, Roth and his team researched and traveled the country testing fire shelters that could withstand 2,000 degrees of direct heat. Roth said his shelter maintains its integrity in direct flame for several minutes before breaking apart. The Forest Service shelter breaks down within 20 seconds.
MTDC officials, in the meantime, were researching their own fire shelter alternative. Starting in 1995, a team of researchers spent seven years collecting their own data to test fire shelters in reflective and direct flames.
In 2002, MTDC presented 10 designs to interagency directors, including the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management and National Park Service, for consideration to upgrade fire shelters used by federal firefighters. Storm King Mountain submitted four of the 10 but the agencies eventually chose an MTDC version to be their “next generation” fire shelter.
NASA scientists and military experts designed the first fire shelter in the 1950s, but the shelter itself made only a limited number of advancements.
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Weight and funding are the biggest constraints to designing a shelter that holds up to higher temperatures for longer periods of time, said Ted Putnam, who joined the Forest Service in 1963 and began working for the MTDC in 1976.
“Jim Roth didn’t come up with anything new,” Putnam said. “Scientists have had the information since the 1950s.”
In 1993, the Forst Service told Putnam to begin looking for a better fire shelter, but he was given strict instructions that the new product could cost only $10 more than the original $65 shelter.
The weight of the shelter was also a challenge, Putnam said. Firefighters are faster when they aren’t carrying bulky gear. While a 40-pound fire shelter might withstand 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit in any situation for several minutes, it’s not realistic to expect a firefighter to wear one while digging a line or climbing steep ridges to get to a fire.
“Would you rather carry water or a shelter you may never use?” Putnam said.
Materials needed to protect firefighters from direct flames are not cheap, he said. Shelters use aluminum to reflect heat on the outside of the frame. Titanium, he said, is known to work much better, but it could increase the price of a fire shelter to more than $5,000. The current price of a federally approved fire shelter is nearly $335.
“I’ve heard ideas where people considered having a helicopter drop a fire shelter big enough to hold several firefighters in it,” he said. “But the logistics don’t work. Firefighters then become focused on clearing out a space for the shelter and not the fire. Using a helicopter to drop a shelter off is costly. ... Also, who knows if firefighters will make it to the structure if they hiked away from it?”
Some argue fire shelters do more harm than good, said Eric Hipke, who makes safety training videos in Boise for the Wildfire Safety Training Annual Renewal.
In 2005, Canada banned its firefighters from using the shelters, he said. Officials said the shelters give firefighters a false sense of protection.
“The thinking is, ‘At least I have shelter with me,’ ” Hipke said.
According to the National Interagency Fire Center, there have been 16 incidents in which firefighters deployed fire shelters while suppressing wildfires since 2005.
Three of those incidents resulted in fatalities, including, most recently, the 19 firefighters who died after deploying their shelters while battling the Yarnell Hill fire near Prescott, Ariz., on June 30.
If firefighters were given better shelters, Dave Turbyfill believes his son would still be alive.
Travis Turbyfill, 27, was a Granite Mountain Hotshot crew member from Prescott, Ariz. Like his fellow crew members, he died after he was fully in his fire shelter. When direct flame passed over the crew, the shelters broke down and the men died.
Turbyfill is working to build a fire shelter that can withstand direct heat of 2,000 degrees, the average temperature of a wildfire. He doesn’t believe the next fire shelter has to take years to develop before getting it in the hands of firefighters.
“I don’t want another family to have to face what 19 families have had to face,” he said. “I started working on this two weeks after the tragedy. I want to help facilitate a national conversation about how we deal with wildland firefighting.”
What happened in Prescott, Ariz., also sparked Roth to begin building a new fire shelter.
After the MTDC unveiled its new shelter in 2002, Roth was no longer pursuing his prototype.
He said he felt used by the MTDC. Several of the characteristics of the agency’s 2002 fire shelter were part of his original prototype. When the agency filed a patent for the shelter, Roth didn’t want to go through the trouble of a lawsuit.
His company was taking off developing other fire tools like shelter curtains for fire engines, used to protect firefighters stuck in an engine when a fire blows over. He found a market selling his products to local and state fire agencies in the United States and Australia.
But learning about what happened in Yarnell changed his mind, Roth said. He has been in contact with Turbyfill and his team is testing a new prototype that should be ready by 2014.
“Firefighters do not get the best equipment,” Roth said. “We need to tell firefighters that this technology is out there. ... Unfortunately, when something goes wrong, they don’t blame the equipment, they blame the firefighter.”