The Fire Shelter

How the New Generation Fire Shelter Works

Wildland firefighting operations are conducted in a high-risk environment. Firefighters and non-firefighters on wildfires can become fatalities during an uncontrolled wildfire in a matter of seconds. The fire shelter was developed to become that last piece of equipment you choose to use when conditions and time make survival impossible during a wildfire. The United States still makes shelters mandatory for crews - Canada has discouraged fire shelters.

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The Fire Shelter, a Mandatory Protective Tent

Fighting Wildfire. Rennett Stowe/Flickr Images

The fire shelter tent is a mandatory protective item issued to firefighters working for most federal, state and local wildland firefighting agencies in the United States.  Many firefighters, having deployed shelters in an emergency situation, indicated that they would not have survived without using one. Some have died in deployed shelters.

The fire shelter has been required equipment for wildland firefighters since 1977. Since that time, shelters have saved the lives of more than 300 firefighters and have prevented hundreds of serious injuries. A new generation of fire shelter now offers improved protection from both radiant and convective heat.

The bad news is that this fire shelter failed when used in a Yarnell, Arizona fire where nineteen firefighters were killed in a rapidly advancing wildfire during a developing thunderstorm cell, even after they all reportedly deployed fire shelters.​

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Use a Fire Shelter Only as a Last Resort for Survival

Fire shelter Pack. Terra Tech

The fire shelter should only be used as a last resort if planned escape routes or safety zones become inadequate and entrapment is imminent. Carrying a fire shelter should never be considered an alternative to safe firefighting.

If you are considering or are asked to take on a risky assignment because you have a fire shelter, it is your obligation to insist that the plans be changed. Though the new generation fire shelter offers improved protection, it is still a last resort and cannot guarantee your survival. Canadian firefighting agencies have dropped the mandatory fire shelter requirement for improved safety zones and escape planning.

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How the Fire Shelter Works

How a Fire Shelter Works. USFS Illustration

The new generation fire shelter protects primarily by reflecting radiant heat and trapping breathable air . The new shelter has two layers. The outer layer is aluminum foil bonded to woven silica cloth. The foil reflects radiant heat and the silica material slows the passage of heat to the inside of the shelter. An inner layer of aluminum foil laminated to fiberglass prevents heat from reradiating to the person inside the shelter. When these layers are sewn together, the air gap between them offers further insulation.

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Selecting a Fire Shelter Location

Finding a Survivable Fire Shelter Location. USFS

Avoid deploying your shelter in mountain saddles, under or around heavy brush and in topography that experiences updrafts. Avoid draws even if you are on a road and stay away from flammable structures and vehicles. Never locate a fire tent under a tree snag.

Seek bare, flat ground and locate the fire shelter in the center of the cleared area - roads and fire breaks are great if you are not in a draw or where an updraft can occur. A drainage ditch on the uphill side of a road cut can be an effective deployment site unless it contains fuels that could ignite and burn the shelter.

 

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Carrying a Fire Shelter

Carrying a Fire Shelter. USFS

It is important to carry the fire shelter properly. The case should be vertical if it is worn on your side or horizontal if it is worn in the small of your back under your pack. The shelter may be carried in the fire shelter pouch that is a feature of some field packs. A chest harness is available that allows persons operating machinery to carry the shelter on their chest. Never carry your shelter inside the main body of your field pack.

If you are part of a crew, your supervisor will decide where and when to deploy fire shelters. Follow orders. If you are not in a crew or have become separated from your crew, you must rely on your own judgment.

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Deploying a Fire Shelter

Deploy the Fire Shelter Tent. USFS

After removing your shelter from its case, throw your pack and any flammable objects far from the deployment area. Scrape away ground fuels, if time, in an area 4 by 8 feet or larger down to mineral soil.

Use the pull strap to remove the shelter from its case, pull either red ring to remove the plastic bag, pull handles marked RIGHT HAND in red and LEFT HAND in black and shake. Lie face down so your feet are toward the oncoming flames. The hottest part of the shelter should be the side closest to the advancing fire so ​keep your head and airway away from these high temperatures.