SEATTLE — Wildfire smoke from Canada covering the skies of western Washington in May is a stark reminder of the change in recent years in wildfire behavior.
As we head into the 2023 wildfire season, elite current and retired firefighters and wildland fire experts tell the KING 5 Investigators the federal government needs to develop a better version of the equipment meant to save firefighter’s lives in acute emergencies – the fire shelter.
Fire shelters are portable, tent-style blankets, considered the last resort for firefighters who become trapped by flames, without a safe route out. The current shelter, carried by all wildland firefighters, was designed by the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) in 2002. There have been some modifications, but the shelter has essentially remained the same for two decades.
Washington and California wildland firefighters interviewed said the federal government should get serious about developing a better shelter, especially because climate change has created fire seasons that are longer and more intense.
According to the National Academy of Sciences, “human-caused climate change” led the number of large wildfires in the western United States to double between 1984 and 2015.
“You have to think about all the technological advancements in the world in the last two decades,” said a 40-year veteran wildland firefighter from California. “You think about even our telephones and how far they’ve come, so why don’t firefighters have something more advanced?”
“I love the United States. I love the fire service, but we are not where we need to be (with shelters),” said retired smoke jumper Jason Ramos of the Winthrop area who fought fires for 33 years.
Ramos has been a vocal advocate for better life saving equipment for people on the front lines. In 2016 he wrote a book, “Smokejumper,” that criticized the limitations of the current shelter.
“There’s no excuse for a piece of safety equipment not doing what it was designed to do – every time,” wrote Ramos in his book.
According to the USFS, the 2002 shelter referenced by Ramos, known as the new generation shelter, offers greater protection from the original design from the 1960’s. The new generation shelter “will provide improved protection from radiant heat and flames,” wrote Forest Service Equipment Specialist Tony Petrilli in 2003.
But according to government documentation, the adhesive holding the layers of the shelter together begins to break down at 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Wildfires at ground-level burn between 1,800 and 2,000 degrees.
“Over 500 degrees and the shelters are nothing more than glorified tin foil,” said a retired Washington state smoke jumper with four decades of experience who asked not to be named. “Many wildland firefighters are young college students who work in the summer. They aren’t well trained and don’t have the experience to really understand the limitations of our current shelter."
Representatives from the USFS said their wildland firefighters are trained to know fire shelters are not survivable in every situation.
“All wildland firefighters are trained that carrying a fire shelter should never be considered a justification to take on risk. Instead, wildland firefighters are trained to evaluate, mitigate, and manage hazards through developing risk-based firefighting strategies. Wildland firefighting has inherent dangers, but the Forest Service's core value of safety and the agency's focus on evaluating and mitigating hazards is part of our risk management culture,” wrote Wade Muehlhof of the USFS National Press Office in a statement.
Research by the KING 5 Investigators shows approximately 50 firefighters have died attempting to use their fire shelters since 1990. Approximately half died using the original shelter, including four firefighters working on the Thirty Mile Fire in eastern Washington in 2001. The other half died using the new generation version. That number includes 19 elite firefighters who died trying to use their shelters after getting trapped on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013.
Map: Firefighter deaths involving shelter deployment
“For the extreme fire conditions we work in nowadays, you see the fuels, you see the fire activity. Do you want to make operational decisions thinking that shelter’s going to save you? I would not bet on that,” Ramos said.
A deadly wildfire in 1994 inspired research that eventually led to the new generation shelter. That year, 14 firefighters from Oregon and Idaho, armed with the original shelters from the 1960’s, lost their lives on Storm King Mountain in Colorado.
Two months after the tragedy a California-based aeronautical engineer, Jim Roth, started researching ways to build a shelter than the one designed in the 60’s. His brother, 29-year-old Idaho smokejumper Roger Roth, was among the fallen on Storm King Mountain.
“Here it is, almost 30 years later, but I feel like it was yesterday,” said Roth. “I was very, very angry. How he could be taken away at such a young age? I just thought ‘OK, show me, show me (God), what do you want?’ And that’s when the lightbulb went on and I said: ‘OK, I get it.’ That’s when I realized (with my background) I can (create a better shelter).”
Roth traveled the world, collaborating with other scientists, gathering data on thermodynamics, fire behavior, and material tolerance. He altered his entire life’s purpose – to create a shelter survivable in any condition. To carry out his vision, Roth began a company dedicated to his brother: Storm King Mountain Technologies.
“I didn’t do anything with fire until I lost my brother. And it totally changed my life,” Roth said.
After Roth launched his project to improve on the old shelter, researchers at the USFS did as well. By 2002 Roth had designed a prototype that could withstand a heat load of 1,800 degrees. The Forest Service came up with a design that started to break down at 500 degrees. With both versions on the table, a panel of government officials chose the government version.
“It ended up being a political decision. And they went with the Forest Service fire shelter,” Roth said. "It's still inadequate. It's not made to handle these environments that we (now) see in wildfires."
Officials from the USFS said their design was lighter in weight, easier to open, and had a tougher outer foil shell, especially during windy conditions.
“(The SKM design) showed significant delamination of outer foil during (extended) flame exposure,” wrote scientists at the time.
Forest Service representatives also said the SKM design showed more damage when “shaken vigorously to ensure they would hold up to deployment and turbulence.”
From the beginning, fire shelters have saved lives. According to the Forest Service, the old-style shelter prevented 300 injuries and saved 300 lives between 1964 and 2009.
Between 2004 to the present, the Forest Service says the new generation shelter has prevented 114 injuries and saved 61 lives.
In 2008, three Forest Service firefighters were saved while working on the Indians Fire in Central California. The men became trapped and disoriented in the chaos of a fire tornado. They thought there wasn’t a way out.
“I looked at the pavement and thought this is it, this is it for us,” said Engine Captain Roberto Moreno.
Moreno said he knew it was time to deploy their shelters. They threw their shelters over their heads and walked out of the danger zone backward. They were burned, but alive.
“(It) was a big relief (to have the shelter’s protection). At that time, I was able to breath. It was cool underneath the fire shelter, so we just turned around and just started walking back with (them over our heads),” said Moreno.
“Yes, they’ve saved some lives, I’m not arguing that. But why are we not having the best?” said Ramos, the retired smoke jumper. “We want to be varsity. Why are we giving firefighters some JV gear?”
In 2014 the Forest Service launched a fire shelter review project. They worked with 23 different organizations on the effort, including engineers from NASA. Forest Service representatives said hundreds of materials were tested during the five-year review. In the end, government officials decided to stick with the 2002 design, saying “the current fire shelter model continues to provide the most practical amount of protection given tradeoffs of weight, volume (bulk), durability, and material toxicity.”
Currently, there is no organized effort to improve the 2002 shelter, but Forest Service representatives said they will always listen to and pursue new ideas.
"NTDP (the National Technology and Development Program) continues to evaluate materials, material combinations, adhesives, and shelter designs, always working towards the goal of making a better fire shelter for firefighters,” wrote Muehlhof of the USFS.
Jim Roth said in 2023 the shelter he developed in the 1990’s is now out of date due to advancements in materials. He said a re-design is necessary, which would take research, development, and input from the best minds possible.
“That’s the only thing left in life that I have to do, is develop that fire shelter,” Roth said. I’ve been working on it for 30 years. I’ve done it once before. I can do it again. I’m not getting any younger, so now’s the time to really make it happen. I want to get a fire shelter that works in every wildfire into the hands of the firefighters who are putting their lives at risk.”
Timeline: History of fire shelters