This article (below) was written by Lisa Loncar, an Engine Operator in West Virginia. Lisa has some thoughts on how we view and use Fire Shelters. Lisa wrote down her thoughts and shared them with the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center so we could share them with our audience. This is the field speaking. This is the model for dialogue.
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Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?
And other thoughts and questions
By Lisa Loncar Supervisory Fire Engine Operator, White Sulfur Springs Ranger District, Monongahela National Forest, West Virginia
Although the fire shelter has proved to be a useful and effective tool when used as intended, are there times when we can forego wearing one?
Throughout my career I have spoken to many firefighters who have differing opinions about fire shelters. Generally, there are two camps: one feels we should definitely wear them, and the other feels we don’t need to ever wear them. Of course there are also “in-betweens,” folks who feel that wearing a fire shelter should be a personal choice, not a standard policy.
I was on a fire in Virginia this past fall and had an opportunity to have a discussion with one of the Division Supervisors about this very topic. His feeling is one that falls in the middle. He thought it makes sense to wear fire shelters only when needed.
For example (my example): If the fire is contained and it has started raining, will continue to rain for several days, but due to the large size of the fire we still need to get out on the line—can we ditch the ole’ shelter?
I mainly work on an Engine. There are plenty of times I have (and witnessed many others who also have) walked into the black on a contained fire a chain+ from my truck without my fire line pack, let alone my shelter—albeit I always seem to throw on the brain bucket.
I take this calculated risk based on experience. Yes, I know that one of the common denominators on tragedy fires is the mop-up phase. So I guess the question to ask is: Am I just being complacent or am I really using my fire behavior knowledge? I should probably also mention that on an active fire I rarely ever walk ten feet from my Engine without throwing on my pack and shelter.
My Thoughts on Safety Zones
I am briefly going to move to an important side topic: Safety Zones.
I know there are some newer calculations for a safety zone right now, but I am going to bring up the one most of us know, which is loosely four times the size of the flame height in all four directions from our person.
The math starts getting out of hand when you start adding up all of your crew and equipment. I’m more interested in the safety zone as it pertains to fire behavior than the actual dimensions. I believe that “true” safety zones are only relevant in surface fires with a particular flame height. I have not completed any scientific calculations; this is purely observation.
What I mean here is, once a fire reaches the crown we cannot make safety zones large enough. Well, that’s not really true. We can; but we usually don’t. If you don’t like my logic, do some math. First, think about how many people are on one Division and all the equipment that goes with it, then do the calculation (use the function in Behave 5.0 if you hate math).
You will learn just how large an area needs to be to be considered a “safety zone,” not a “deployment zone.” Now if you use the more current math, you might be even more alarmed. Also, we know that as we move along the line we need more than one safety zone.
So I ask, how many acres are we really going to take out to create a safety zone? I should also mention that most of our safety zones are actually created when the fire is just a surface fire.
Pros and Cons of Fire Shelters
Okay, now back to fire shelters. This topic of fire shelter use has many pros and cons, and possesses many questions. Because I cannot conceive them all, I will only address a few here.
A few of the questions I ask myself about fire shelters, in no particular order:
- Can we be “trusted” to take our shelter on and off at the appropriate times? What are the appropriate times?
- Would we remember to put it back in our packs under times of stress?
- Are we willing to allow people to make their own choice? Can we really make our own choice? (Peer pressure not only exists but is alive and well—from the “newbie’s” up through the “old dogs.”) Given the aftermath of a fatality fire will our families be willing to accept our choice?
- Are fire shelters just a crutch at this point?
- Why don’t we pay attention to fire behavior and punt at a time we know we can’t catch it (yes we know this), instead of not only putting people in harm’s way, but allowing them to believe they can “catch it”?
The number one “con” of a fire shelter is its weight. In 2004, when I received my “New Generation” fire shelter, the most obvious difference to that of my old one was the weight. This “new” shelter is almost double the weight of the “old” one. We all complain about it.
In a quest to carry as little weight as possible in our packs while still carrying what we as individuals consider essential, the weight of the shelter has always been a topic of discussion. There are good safety reasons for not toting around a cinderblock if you don’t need it. If you pack less weight, there is less chance of injury (ankle, knee, hip strain, etc.), one would have more stamina and less fatigue, one would even be more agile . . . You get the point.
Likewise, of course, there is good reason for carrying a fire shelter. After all, it has saved lives and prevented many burn injuries.
Do We Really Learn Anything?
Now I am going to bring up a very raw subject, one I know will raise the hackles: Granite Mountain. I am not going to speak to the events, just the fire shelters. Nineteen individuals died in their fire shelters. Just looking at the facts of the design of fire shelters we know they can only withstand a certain amount of heat and direct flame impingement for a certain amount of time. They are an absolute last resort and for greatest success should be used as intended. Yes our jobs are dangerous (no matter how much we change our buzz words, case in point: safety vs. risk management) and can result in severe injury or death.
We all study the history of fire. We read investigations and Facilitated Learning Analyses about fatality fires, burn-over incidents, major accidents, and prescribed fire escapes. And I ask (and have been for some time): Do we really learn anything?
What I really mean is, do we take these lessons and put them into practice? If we really do so, then why do we have the saying “History repeats itself”? If still unconvinced, watch the Mack Lake video then read the Foss Lake FLA (or any other FLAs on escaped prescribed fire for that matter) and see how many similarities you find.
Discussion is How We Find Solutions
What is my intent in all this pontificating? It is to make you think and to use this thinking for not only positive outcomes but to provide you enough “hair” to speak up—even when it makes you unpopular.
I, for one, would much rather be unpopular than maimed, or worse, dead.
I hope I made you angry, or some other emotion, so that you are now willing to share your perspective with the fire community, no matter what the topic. After all, discussion is how we find solutions. I also hope that I recognize hazardous situations better and quicker so I can mitigate/deal with the risk quickly enough to not get hurt. I hope you do, too.
I will never really know if this article helped you decide on a stance, but I do hope it helps you to be a more thoughtful firefighter—not one who won’t take action, but one who will take action more mindfully.
We (Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center) chose to include this recent video from the 2016 Canyon Fire as food for thought related to Lisa’s piece. Please leave comments.
Be sure to read the report: Canyon Fire Entrapment