Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?

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?VenusEmbers

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:

  1. Can we be “trusted” to take our shelter on and off at the appropriate times? What are the appropriate times?
  2. Would we remember to put it back in our packs under times of stress?
  3. 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?
  4. Are fire shelters just a crutch at this point?
  5. 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

9 thoughts on “Are Fire Shelters Always Necessary?

  1. I’m going to simplify this down a bit to some basic facts: safety zone = no need for shelter. Deployment site: prepped and cleared area determined to be survivable in a shelter.
    Are they bulky? Yep. Simple answer, get stronger. Is it going to kill you if you carry it? Odds are damn slim but damn near guaranteed if you need it and don’t have it. Throw math around all you want. Murphy’s law is pretty simple: when you need it you’ll have left it in your engine with the cold gato’s. I spent years as a shot and yes, there were times when we dropped packs during mop-up or other random ops and it was a judgment call made by overhead. I guess I fall on the middle somewhere but bottom line is if you aren’t strong enough to carry around the pack and necessary gear then you aren’t fit to do the job. Further, If you are pulling your shelter, mistakes were already made. Period.
    Lastly, you don’t get to bring up Yarnell only to make no point. They died in their shelters because they had no other option. I can’t imagine any one of them thought they’d live through it with fuels like that.

  2. Lisa,
    Interesting article and write-up you have presented here. There are certainly some pros and cons of the fire shelter (especially my new, extra-long and quite heavy) one that I am currently carrying around to fit myself into with adequate air space for insulation in case something awful happens. Let me be the first to address some my opinions on the questions you posed and then maybe, depending on how sporty I’m feeling, offer some additional thoughts.

    1) Can we be “trusted” to take our shelter on and off at the appropriate times? What are the appropriate times?
    I would argue here that the answer is “no” for a variety of reasons. Rookies and even 2-4 year firefighters do not know/ understand enough to make that decision for themselves. This leads to a significant risk that they will be tempted by the reduced weight, potential increased performance in a highly competitive environment, or simply, as you mentioned, peer pressure to drop their fire shelter in favor of individual or group increased performance… NOT that they would actually be making an informed decision for their own benefit.
    That said, I agree with your statement that there are some (I would argue many) times currently that a fire shelter is an unnecessary item. When those cases are, could potentially be left up to an experienced individual in the situation such as the DIVS. Morning DIV breakout briefing could include the days orders on fire shelters. This would allow for the leeway we are taking about with a decision being made by an experienced firefighter.
    The down-side of this proposed option is two-fold. 1) What do you leave that DIVS with if something happens and s/he made a bad call. That individual could be destroyed by the guilt, quite literally, and the legal liability associated with that decision would be devastating. 2) Agency liability- in the case as described above the agency would likely also be held liable in court by the families, so agencies would likely be reluctant to allow this.
    All that said, we have all chosen this profession. Even without this our decisions include risk and liability so the potential for a little more may not be game-ending.

    2) Would we remember to put it back in our packs under times of stress?
    This is another good question. There’s always a chance that we forget something important. This could be mitigated in the morning briefing by stating what the fire shelter needs are for that day and ensuring a check at the engine or squad level. No system is perfect, someone will forget it at some point, but we could certainly have systems to minimize that from happening.

    3) 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?
    As described previously, I don’t think this is possible to do at the individual level. It would need to be done by an experienced individual (arguably the DIVS) for all the resources in this area to reduce the potential for these outside pressures. Some basics would be needed such as a “Fire shelters must be worn during all IA operations.” To help clarify some of the decisions.
    Or… here’s a magic thought, we could do away with them all together and just reduce the amount of risk we were taking on our job. This would get rid of the back and fourth, to wear or not to wear question.

    4) Are fire shelters just a crutch at this point?
    Ah, this is my favorite question that you have posed here. I believe that the argument for not carrying fire shelters is not rooted in a need to shed the weight. I’m 6’2, 215lbs and by the time you add the saw, gas, hose, or extra gear generally carried into the fire each day when I was on a crew, I had 65-70lbs of gear. The fire shelter is a state of mind- that we are going to operate on the edge of reason and bring this tool of last resort with us. This is a state of mind common to the personality types found in fire—strong type As are the most common. This is a personality type of action in the face of minimal information, these are folks who, even when a fire is burning out of control and fast, want to do what they can to help/save what they can.
    The argument to shed the fire shelter in my mind is actually an argument to change the culture and approach to wildland fire suppression. I am a proponent of this idea, and under new conditions would be perfectly happy to have individuals making their own decisions about whether or not to carry a fire shelter. Before changing the policies associated with fire shelters we must change the culture of how we operate to truly be safety first.
    This would mean a big shift away from how we currently do operations during high-risk situations such as IA structure protection, IA during expanding incidents and generally how we approach fire suppression risks. Looking at fire burnover fatalities in the last 30years, the vast majority of burnover incidents happen during the IA stage of a fire. Safety during IA is the biggest challenge and shelters are part of that equation right now… but IAs also account for the largest number of our fires since the vast majority of fires (95-98%) are caught during the IA under 10-ish acres. Through aggressive IA and keeping the vast majority of fires small, we significantly reduce the exposure hours and thereby risk associated with suppression efforts on large fires. Where is that break-even point between taking a little risk during IA and not having more large project fires.

    5) 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”?
    What a good question. There’s plenty of models available today to predict fire behavior, ROS, FL, Fireline Intensity etc… but the answers they offer are a wide range, are generally not easily available on IAs and most of the models do not address the “extreme fire behavior” times when most of these accidents occur.
    We all have been on those fires that are gone, yet we keep attacking them like we’re gonna catch them. These rapidly expanding IA fires or large blow-up events are a small percentage of what we see but offer up a HUGE risk to firefighters. These are the fires where there is generally a local IC, maybe from an agency or also potentially from your local VFD (who may lack what we/NWCG considers the training level needed for these fires) managing way too many resources outside their span of control without a fully built ICS organization and potentially with local overhead likely not trained to the level that they are operating at on a fire.
    These fires are easy to recognize from the outside but are largely ignored during mid-level IC training (think ICT4) and what to do in these situations is not communicated well. The training says, “do what you safely can” in short, but reference is not given on just how little that may look like. This is an important step where we teach our ICs that it is okay sometimes to do nothing, or very little. We are also pretty bad at identifying and acting on situations where we are in over our head. Taking more time to train on these high-risk rapidly expanding incidents (especially at the local level) would help do exactly what you are proposing. But, how to get volunteers and seasonal employees more training time? These folks are in a tough spot either doing this as a seasonal job or as a volunteer in many cases with limited time and resources. Food for thought.

    To the rest of your article and some of the other points. The Granite Mtn. accident report has the crew’s time as “less than two minutes” to improve their deployment site. The crewmembers were in “various stages of the process of deploying their fire shelters… when the fire overtook them”. Only seven firefighters were found fully inside their fire shelters. That said, temperatures at the deployment site were 2,000+ deg, it was not a survivable location.

    To offer a little bit of my own opinion here at the end of this, I would like to pose a larger question. Why have fire shelters at all? What I’m talking about is not just getting rid of some weight in our pack, I’m talking about a change in safety culture, a change in how we do business as a whole. Without fire shelters, could/would we change how we approach fire suppression entirely? Would we begin to change, at all levels, from agency administrators to ICs and down to FFT2s? Is the answer not moderation, but to fully dive in and change everything we know?

  3. Lisa
    Thanks for taking the time to pose those questions.
    I think that carrying a shelter should be a personal decision. Clearly there are times when there Is no way you are going to need it.
    I’ve been doing this for 22 years. Time and time again I’ve seen managers try and eliminate bad decisions by making more and more rules.
    I don’t see the mentality changing anytime soon though. Nobody wants to make a decision that may seem to be making things less safe.
    As far as carrying it when you may need it, I had a good discussion about that ten years ago
    “The shelter is your last resort” well, what if you didn’t have the shelter? Would your last resort be to not put yourself in a place where you may need it? Clearly there would still be times when things blew up, but would there be less instances of people being in those places in the first place?


  4. Lisa,

    Good article and good questions.

    If the argument from anyone is that the shelter is extra weight, I’d say stop bellyaching, this is a physically demanding job. Anyone in our field should know this after their first season. If you can’t hack it, get a desk job.

    Can we be responsible enough to choose when to wear it etc? No.

    I wouldn’t want to be on a crew where some had shelters and others didn’t. The unlikely event occurs (blowup) that you need it and some have it and some don’t…somebody is gonna be sharing, because who is honestly let their fellow crew member out to the fire? Not me but I also want to go home at the end of the day. We all know that sharing a shelter makes the event less survivable. So keep it simple and uniform.

    And let’s just talk about safety zones….how often are they truly safety zones ??? Most of the time however I’ve seen firsthand and have heard of plenty of situations where they just didn’t exist in the true sense. I’m sure I’m not the only one to observe this occasionally. It’s sad but true, we do the best we can but sometimes a “safety zone” might actually just be a deployable sight even though that’s not the definition. Not to mention if your escape route becomes compromised then you bet your bottom dollar anyone without a death wish is gonna want shelter in that instance.

    The shelter is necessary.

  5. Anonymous,
    With 40+ years in the fire industry, (mostly wildfire) I feel the first thing to do on any fire is to be observant. When the hair stands up on the back of your neck or you get a funny feeling, that something is just not right, get out now, move to a new area, get into the black, Drive your engine, tender or dozer away to a safe area, Safe area is a subjective statement here, what is safe after all. I have put in many safety zones with a dozer, and many times they turn out to be only deployment zones. The math says it all, take a couple 20 man crews, several engines a couple dozers, water tenders and overhead. You need a large area depending on the fuels and fire behavior. Fire shelters are great if used correctly, which is only as a last resort to save your bacon. Regarding when to carry a shelter and not to care it and leave it in the cab or on the back of the truck in your line gear. That’s up to crew boss, engine boss, Div sup, or other leaders of authority. The 30mile fire showed poor leadership and a host of other issues which lead up to that tragedy, from the top of the chain of command down to the FF2 on the incident. This is a hot subject that, I know we can discuss for eons. Remember all fires as small as 10 acres can have many complexities, tall trees with ladder fuels, tall grass on an open slope heated by the sun. Steep ravens and so forth. Each one has a different fire element and behaves differently at different times of the day. Each one area can entrap a fire fighter. You may not even see the fire creep up behind you and then you do not have time to deploy a fire shelter.
    Rules on carrying a fire shelter are not personal and rules are made to keep us safe. I go back to my first statement, be observant to what the fire is doing at all times, know your escape route’s, if you need to disengage and reevaluate, do so. If it feels funny, looks not quite right or even smells wrong. Leave!! set up and observe. I don’t like having rookies as safety observers and I do not like to see people scout a fire.
    My first fire as an engine boss at age 19 had a seasoned smoke jumper loose his life scouting the fire. Fire shelters are like your PPE’s; helmet, leather gloves and leather boots, each one is needed and has its purpose.

  6. Simple solution. Wear them. The extra weight is good for you and makes you tougher.

    I do agree on the new safety zone calculus. Too much math to be used in a quick situation.

  7. You should never be allowed of the black top again. This is some ignorant half baked crap. Wear it always. If it is to heavy for you do not take the assignment. Who am I, 33 years carded in everything up to division group supervisor. Started as a hot shot heli tack crew member for 4 years. Worked brush fires in every type of cover in all types of weather. Shelters and safety zones are not any good in crown fires are you kidding me. I was hoping this was written on April fools day. EVERY TIME YOU SET FOOT ON THE DIRT PUT YOUR SAFETY EQUIPMENT ON. You are right people continue to die on wild fires. What you rarely read is the quals of the supervisor who sent them into harms way.
    It should be a crime to sign off on a task book for a buddy to get him his card. Hours in the seat do not equate to experience. The one constant is they were caught by surprise, by a weather change or they ignored the basic safety rules. There is not a square foot of brush that is worth losing a life for. What is certain is they save lives. If it is two heavy to carry do not take the assignment.

  8. I want to say thanks to everyone whom left a comment. I not only appreciate the feedback, but am hoping you are talking with your folks about this topic and others, it is the only way we will improve.
    Thanks again – Lisa

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