By Brent Woffinden, Fire Management Officer
U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service/National Park Service – New England States
The pending 2021 fire season will be my last as a permanent federal employee. Over the years of my service I often had pause in carrying a fire shelter when I knew that it would not be a useful component to my Personal Protective Equipment.
The thought of being involved in a fire entrapment or burnover incident is a real and serious concern for all wildland fire fighters. The ubiquitous presence of fire shelters as a significant component of our PPE numbs us to its importance. Our most important tool in entrapment avoidance is the collective knowledge of weather and fire behavior that should guide how we interact with the dynamic nature of wildfire.
While I am not an advocate for eliminating the use of fire shelters, when we understand and train for their proper application and importance, we will be able to move beyond our reliance on shelters when their presence is either unnecessary or dangerous.
Sound Decisions on Proper Engagement and Disengagement of Tactics
My career began in 1985 working as part of the Cal Poly Max 2 Crew, a 20-person wildland fire crew comprised of college students. Our first shift of our first fire of the season was on the Wheeler Fire near Ojai, California.
We had started to cut handline off a road going up Matilija Canyon when the fire blew up and made a run down the canyon. As engines momentarily disengaged from structure protection, we did the same, leaving a partially completed fireline to escape the advancing fire. By the time we had reached the crew buggies, the fire was on both sides of the road and engulfing the vehicles as they made a slow egress to safety. As this was my first fire, I thought all this was normal.
We continued to engage in suppressing the Wheeler Fire for the next 19 days as it moved onto the Los Padres National Forest. Three years later, as a member of a 20-person Alaskan hotshot crew, while engaged in suppressing a large tundra fire near Alaska’s Warring Mountains, a wind switch occurred, rapidly changing direction of the fire and forcing our crew to use an escape route to a previously identified safety zone.
In both of these situations—in California and Alaska—crew leadership made sound decisions on proper engagement and disengagement of tactics based on fire behavior that remain with me to this day.
Actions Taken in a Compromised Situation
In 2005, while serving as a Fire Management Officer (FMO) based on the Texas coast we were applying fire on Matagorda Island. A trainee from the Fire Use Training Center and I were doing some interior ignitions when we temporarily lost radio communications with the primary ignition crew and were in a compromised situation.
The trainee asked if we should find a location to deploy fire shelters. With the average fuel loading exceeding 8 tons per acre this was not a viable option. He did not have a familiarity with the terrain and fuel type. I assured him that we would find a suitable spot where deployment of shelters would not be needed and if no such spot could be located we would use one of the several different types of firing devices to create a suitable safety zone. We found a suitable area where the fire worked its way around us without the need to exercise the emergency firing option.
The Questioning of Carrying a Fire Shelter
I share these three examples because, while in all three instances fire shelters were carried, they definitely would have led to a much worse outcome if a shelter had been deployed in fuel conditions that would not have been survivable.
Since that auspicious initial fire and the 36 years of wild and prescribed fire since, like the vast majority of U.S. fire personnel, I have never exercised the option of deploying a fire shelter. As much as I would like to attribute this to the application of sound fire practices and tactics, luck has also played a role as there are times when circumstances dictate the need for such use. Having the ready option to deploy a fire shelter should therefore be available. That being said, there are also times when carrying a fire shelter has a neutral or negative consequence for wildland firefighters.
Consider Eliminating Fire Shelters on Prescribed Fires
For instance, when planning for and implementing prescribed fires, the need to carry fire shelters in most, if not all, cases should be eliminated through proper planning. The planning process for prescribed fires requires us (federal employees) to assess the risk to firefighters when completing the “complexity analysis” of all prescribed fire plans. If on the high end of the complexity analysis, we must ask ourselves why we are engaging in the implementation of a high-risk operation.
Furthermore, if the risk is both required and accepted by line personnel and leadership, then fire shelters should be considered and discussed in the operational briefing. If on the moderate to low end of the complexity analysis, then fire shelters should not be carried or provide the option to not carry one as they are unnecessary.
This spring my current home unit plans on implementing prescribed fires all with low to moderate risk based on the completed complexity analysis. Those on the moderate end of risk are due to other factors not related to fire behavior. One example is a planned burn on a small island in the middle of a river in which we plan to burn three acres of grass. This risk is on the boat ride to the island in which having the extra bulk and weight of fire shelters would reduce safety rather than enhance it. The other planned fires are on coastal islands, in urban areas or open fields with insufficient vegetation to allow for Rx fire to get out of control sufficient to require shelter deployment.
If a local unit accepts the rationale for implementing high complexity prescribed fire, then by all means fire shelters should be carried. During the briefing, it should be explained why such a tool is needed and reinforce the measures taken to avoid its use. In the same line of thinking, if a high level of risk is taken, then that risk should be acknowledged via hazardous duty pay for those that qualify (line assignments and employment status).
When, Where, and Why
In summary, as the risk of engagement with wildfire will continue to increase, we should rethink when, where, and why we carry fire shelters.
WHEN: When engaged in initial attack or certain large fires. Fire managers and incident commanders should be able to decide when there is a need to carry fire shelters. (For example, when mopping-up in the rain the need to carry a fire shelter is not necessary and having it in one’s gear subjects it to undue wear and tear as well as adding weight and reduced efficiency to individual firefighters.)
WHERE: Where the fuels would allow for rapid safe deployment. (For instance, not in boreal or palmetto forests or other fuel types where deployment is detrimental to survival.)
WHY: If there is valid rational for fire personnel to carry a fire shelter then the only reason for use would be as a last resort when all other options are not viable (retreating to the black/safety zone, etc.).
By thinking about When, Where, and Why to carry fire shelters—rather than having our shelters be a heavy, bulky and expensive resource that sits in our packs being sat on and subject to abrasion by dirt, dust and smoke—will make us all better students of fire and how we engage with it.