The Development of Fire Shelters: A Timeline

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Back in 1804, a quick-thinking mother threw a bison hide over her son to protect him from a raging prairie fire. According to explorer William Clark, the fire stayed on the outskirts of the bison hide making it a safe haven for the boy. Clark was so impressed with the feat that he wrote it about it in his now-famous journals.

Today’s fire shelters are much more sophisticated but serve the same purpose: protecting the people inside from the dangerous elements just outside the shelter. Since the late 1950s, fire shelters have seen a lot of evolution and improvements. Take a look at how the contemporary fire shelter came to be.

1958 – 1959

Australian inventors put together a bell-shaped foil and glass shelter out of cloth laminate. From there they developed an A-frame shape and got rid of the bell-shaped concept.

During this time frame, the USFS Missoula Equipment Development Center, or MEDC, began the development of fire resistant clothing that could be worn in fire shelters.

1961

MEDC finishes sketches and buys prototypes of cone-shaped shelters that weigh just over 3 pounds. The cone-shaped design allows it to be rolled up and carried easily with the aid of a belt. The next year, both A-frame and cone-shaped fire shelters were tested and the A-frame design proved to be the stronger and more functional of the two.

1966

MEDC redesigns prototypes to be an A-frame prototype instead. The newly-designed shelter makes use of aluminum foil and glass cloth laminate, with a barrier liner made of kraft paper. The shelter folds like an accordion and weighs just over 4 pounds. It can easily attach to a belt.

1967

The first large order of fire shelters (6,000) is made—a DuPont adhesive is used for the laminate that better handles the heat. An instruction sheet and carrying case is added.

1974

Spanish translation is added to the instructions and the kraft paper liner is eliminated.

1976

A fire at Battlement Creek entrapped and killed three firefighters who did not have access to fire shelters.

1977

The Forest Service starts requiring all of its firefighters to carry a fire shelter.

1978 – 1979

Toxicity concerns arise with fire shelters in the field and a recalls begin.

1981

Toxicity testing is required for fire shelters that mandates no adhesives are used that release toxins in heat.

1985

Some shelters crack due to brittleness but there is no recall because there are no replacements available. More thorough and frequent inspections are added.

1991

A shelter design overhaul begins that looks at everything from size and shape to materials.

1994

Fire shelters start coming in U-shaped bags that have a scored pull strip.

1995 - 1996

The first field testing of fire shelters begins that includes exposure to direct flame contact. Advanced field testing takes place in California and Florida to better predict actual fire environments. In 1997, MTDC (formerly MEDC) starts even more in-depth field testing of fire shelters.

2000

Reports surface about pull strips separating before the polyvinyl bag is open, and a national safety alert is issued. A higher quality version of the fire shelter bag is released and older fire shelters go through a re-bagging process.

2002

MTDC releases its 2002 fire shelter model that has three laminates for elevated protection. The shape transitions to a half-round with quarter-dome ends. It includes reinforced entrance holes and stronger features for deployment.

2013

Nineteen firefighters died in a forest fire in Yarnell, Arizona, though they deployed their fire shelters. 

Fire shelters will continue to evolve and be perfected in order to keep those fighting fires in the field safe. Despite some fatalities, even when fire shelters are in place, they have saved 300 lives since 1977.

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