Fire shelters - a major safety aspect of battling flames - NBC12 - WWBT - Richmond, VA News On Your Side

Fire shelters - a major safety aspect of battling flames


Fire shelters are a last resort for firefighters when trapped by fast-moving flames. The elite crew that battled the Arizona wildfire even deployed the tent, but the flames' force was just too strong for anyone to survive under those conditions. Virginia's Department of Forestry showed NBC12 exactly how and when these shelters are used.  

Any time firefighters are battling a forest fire, they always have escape routes or safety zones if there's an emergency. Crews always have these fire shelters on hand if they can't escape - but they rarely deploy them unless they're desperate.   

A fire shelter could be the only separation between life and death for even the most experienced hot shot. Regional Forester, David Milby, says none of his men have ever had to deploy one, but they train every year in case they have to. 

"The crew leader is the one who decides when to deploy, where to deploy, and when to come out of the shelters," said Milby.  

The erratic winds coupled with extreme heat in Arizona made 19 elite firefighters deploy their emergency shelters - but the force was just too strong to save them. 

It hits home for a lot of us," said Milby. "We don't have the large fires that they have out west but we all go to fires and they all burn just as hot. It kind of hits home a little bit. I don't know these people but I feel connected to them because we're all wildlife firefighters." 

Milby says many times this cocoon, made of a heavy reflective material, could save a firefighter's life, and it has in the past.  

This shelter is a firefighter's last resort. When those flames are getting dangerously close, they will clear out the ground to bare soil and then they'll get inside, wrap their whole body up until those flames pass over. 

Milby says temperatures can climb so hot inside these cocoons - causing second degree burns in some cases, but their chance of survival is increased. The key is to make sure the material isn't touching the skin - airflow is a must. 

"It's not fireproof," said Milby. "It can burn, but it takes very extreme heat to burn and catch fire."

Milby says even in the worse situations, the $300 shelter could be a firefighter's last hope, but as we saw in Arizona, there is never a 100% guarantee.

In Virginia, one of the biggest problems firefighters face is something called urban interface - meaning housing developments in wooded or rural areas which can make fighting fires and digging fire breaks that much tougher. For resources on preventing a major fire near your home, and click "All Access" on our website.

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