It was around 2 AM and a faint orange glow glimmered through the thin fabric of my sleeping bag. I had slept pretty well up until then but knew I needed to wake up soon because it wasn’t the sun glowing through my bag. The meadow that our 20-person crew used as a spike camp in the remote Seven Devils Mountains was engulfed in spectacular 100-foot flames. We could feel the heat from a hundred yards away. The tinder-dry fringe of timber surrounding the meadow was an inferno and we knew we were in for a long night. To add to the panicking and minor chaos, it started to rain, but the rain combined with cascading embers from the roman candles was not exactly a picnic. As a fairly “green” firefighter, the first thing that came to my mind was to turn my fire shelter into a flameproof poncho, which seemed to make the most sense for the occasion.
The rain actually was enough to dowse the flames for the rest of the night, but there was still enough hot spots left over to warrant caution. Others and myself ended up with partially burned sleeping bags and other gear from the ember fallout. However, deploying the fire shelter was a big no no.
There is a time and a place for a fire shelter. Neither one is grounds for humor. Approximately three hundred fire fighters have had their lives spared over the last several years as a result of fire shelters being deployed at the right time and place. The somewhat insignificant scenario involving my fire shelter was one of countless similar cases. However, I never really understood the underlying principle behind safe deployment. The shelter itself, packed tightly into a small plastic case, is nothing more than excess baggage for many fire fighters, and especially a nuisance when a long uphill hike to fight flames is required. I knew it served its purpose. Yet for the 28 known fire fighters that have died from simply not knowing how to properly deploy, it was by no means a failure to carry it with them. During a fire fighting refresher course at Eastern Oregon Community College, representatives from the Intermountain Fire Station’s Fire Sciences Lab demonstrated how a fire shelter can prove to be fatally ineffective. The material in the lining of the shelter only acts as a temporary shield. Depending on how a fire fighter reacts to any shelter situation, a fire fighter only has a few seconds to deploy and adapt to the intense heat under the shelter. The slightest upward movement once in the cocoon position could cause a chimney effect allowing gases from the fire to choke the victim. It is a necessity to psyche one’s self up to a very uncomfortable minute or two; well worth a life. The tendency to cool off with water applied to the skin, while under the shelter, has the opposite effect. The moisture conducts heat and the sauna-like conditions may cause the lungs to expand. Moist air is more harmful than dry air. We were basically told to drink lots of water, which is common practice anyway, whether on the line or in camp. Furthermore, it was discovered that gases in the glue from the material will eventually fill the shelter with smoke and may cause sudden ignition inside the shelter. This heat will eventually lead to a decomposition of the aluminum foil and would make the shelter potentially useless.
As my crew boss told me, after the word leaked out about my substitute rain gear/shelter that federal investigations could follow regarding the abuse of fire shelter safety, I knew that it was not to be taken light heartedly. Luckily for me, my shelter was still intact and though I was unable to fold it back into the plastic, nothing ever came of the situation that was job threatening. The following year, I learned how to properly deploy the shelter in another class demonstration. Not only do flames need to take into account, but also slope, winds and time are key factors in a successful deployment. The early morning bombardment of embers in that Idaho meadow was probably not considered a legitimate situation by the protocol. The necessities for a fire shelter is to protect a life, not aid it in an otherwise avoidable fluke. I just hope the next time it is raining embers on the fire line, the rain is embers and not water.