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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Spanish translation is added to the instructions and the
kraft paper liner is eliminated.
A fire at Battlement Creek entrapped and killed three
firefighters who did not have access to fire shelters.
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.
Toxicity testing is required for fire shelters that mandates
no adhesives are used that release toxins in heat.
Some shelters crack due to brittleness but there is no
recall because there are no replacements available. More thorough and frequent
inspections are added.
A shelter design overhaul begins that looks at everything
from size and shape to materials.
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.
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.
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
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