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The History of Wildland Fire Shelters

Written 06.27.23 | By Dominique A.

Fire shelters have a rich history, born out of a need to provide a last resort for firefighters facing the wrath of wildfires. They play a critical role in providing a last line of defense in life-threatening situations. Wildland firefighters were not required to carry fire shelters when out on call until the Battlement Creek Fire in the 1970s, when fire shelters were not used and cost the lives of three firefighters. Since then, they have been a crucial tool for wildland firefighters when gearing up for a job. Statistics from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group (NWCG) show that from 2004 to 2022, the new-generation fire shelter had been deployed 203 times, saving 61 lives.

What is a Fire Shelter?

Fire shelters are lightweight, portable, and flame-resistant devices designed to shield wildland firefighters from the intense heat of wildfires. They consist of an aluminum foil-covered shell with an outer layer of silica cloth that helps to reflect heat. When properly used, fire shelters create a small pocket of breathable air and reduce heat exposure, providing vital protection until the immediate danger passes. However, the fire shelter isn't meant to protect against continuous contact with the flames.

Regular and large size fire shelters deployed
Photo Credit: National Wildfire Coordinating Group - Regular and large size fire shelters deployed

The First Fire Shelter

According to NWCG, the first reported use of a "fire shelter" dates back to 1804 when Captain William Clark documents in his journal that a wildfire had erupted, killing some while others were able to escape. A child had hidden under buffalo skin to shield against the fire, and witnesses said the grass didn't show burn signs where the child was hiding.

In 1958 Australia developed a bell-shaped fire shelter made with aluminum foil and fiberglass cloth. The following year, they switched to an A-frame design. They began working alongside the Missoula Technology and Development Center, MTDC (formerly Missoula Equipment Development Center), sharing plans for a fire shelter. The final design of the old-style fire shelter was an A-framed shaped shelter made of aluminum foil, fiberglass cloth laminate, and an inner lining of kraft paper. It weighed 4.3 pounds and was folded accordion style with an orange case. Then in 1967, the Forest Service purchased its first order of 6000 fire shelters through the General Services Administration (GSA). By 1974, the kraft paper liner was removed, and by 1977, fire shelters became mandatory.

After a few years, new changes were added to the fire shelter and the testing method. A new compact design changed how the shelter was folded to fit its new size of 9" x 5 ¾" x 3" instead of its previous size of 14" x 6" x 3"; its new case was now yellow instead of orange, and hold-down flaps were added. The toxicity test was introduced in 1981 as part of the fire shelter specification. This test would later help evaluate the adhesive used to bind the fire shelter. While testing the old-style fire shelter, cameras were placed inside the tent to capture footage of the environment. During the test, a fire was ignited inside the shelter, which led to further investigation. With the help of the Department of Mechanical Engineering at the University of Alberta in 1999, they discovered when the shelter is exposed to direct flames reaching 450 to 500 degrees, the adhesive turns into a gas passing through the fabric, causing ignition inside the fire shelter if it reached high temperatures. Due to this concern, the Forest Service Fire and Aviation Management approved a new fire shelter design the following year. According to NWCG, from 1964 to 2009, the old-style fire shelter had been deployed about 1,100 times, with half being in precautionary situations where the firefighter wouldn't have sustained significant injuries without the fire shelter. In addition, 300 deployments helped prevent moderate to severe burns, while another 300 deployments helped save lives.

evolution of the fire shelter

New Gen Fire Shelter

The new generation fire shelter, officially named M-2002, is the current fire shelter used by wildland firefighters. When creating the new gen fire shelter, the MTDC used the old-style fire shelter as a baseline. The goal was to improve protection against direct flames and prevent the release of flammable gas caused by the adhesive while also bearing in mind the fire shelter's cost, weight, and size. By 2002, the MTDC created ten fire shelter samples, and the Interagency Fire Directors selected four finalists to review with the goals in mind. After extensive testing, the fire directors decided on Model 2002, which met the criteria necessary for use in the field. The M-2002 was later reviewed from 2014 to 2019, working alongside NASA in hopes of improving the fire shelter using modern materials. After five years of field testing and modifications, they produced sixty new samples of fire shelters to ensure they covered production, material wear, and durability. However, none of the samples could compare to the M-2002 in weight, size, and protection.

The current fire shelter (right) and a fire shelter sample
Photo Credit: National Wildfire Coordinating Group - One of the samples (left) and the current fire shelter (right)

The Battlement Creek Fire

The Battlement Creek Fire is an important reminder of the importance of fire shelters. July 17th, 1976, is a significant day in wildland firefighter history as this devastating fire in Colorado prompted a renewed focus on improving fire shelter technology. This event made fire shelters a required tool by the forest service as the lives of three firefighters, and a pilot were claimed that day, with one survivor. In July 1976, a small fire caused by a lightning storm escalated just 40 miles Northeast of Grand Junction, known as The Battlement Creek Fire. At this time, western Colorado was experiencing an intense fire season due to a severe frost in the month prior, causing high fuel conditions from dried leaves found on Gambel oak trees, Colorado's most flammable fuels.

On the afternoon of July 11th, a severe lightning storm struck the town of Morrisania Mesa, causing a fire the following day in the Battlement Creek drainage, which had burned over an elevation of 6,200 to 8,400 feet on a steep slope. When firefighters arrived, the winds had increased, causing the fire to spread rapidly. In an effort to control the growing fire, they had also requested additional firefighters and equipment to help contain the fire. On July 16th, the plan was to contain the fire along the east side of Battlement Creek Road to prevent the fire from spreading up the canyon where gas wells and pipelines were located. Three air tankers were deployed to contain the fire with fire retardant. One of the pilots, Donald Goodman, had released the fire retardant; however, while attempting to complete a turn, he crashed into the mountain and didn't survive. On July 17th, the Mormon Lake Hotshot crew from Arizona had been tasked with building a handline to burn out the fire. However, the fire cut off their planned escape route, trapping the hotshot crew and eliminating their chance of survival. The four man crew didn't have fire shelters or additional protection other than their PPE to protect them from the flames. These men were Anthony "Tony" Czak, Scott L. Nelson, and Stephen H. Furey. The fourth firefighter was John C. Gibson, who was severely burned but survived the tragic event. The following day, the fire was contained with the help of heavy rain showers. The fire had only burned about 880 acres but cost the lives of three firefighters and provided a valuable lesson for future forest service members on the importance of fire shelters and fire-resistant clothing.

The Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew in 1976
Photo Credit: National Wildfire Coordinating Group - The Mormon Lake Hotshot Crew in 1976

The history of fire shelters is a testament to the ongoing commitment to the safety and well-being of wildland firefighters. Fire shelters are critical in providing wildland firefighters with a last line of defense in life-threatening situations. By understanding their origins, purpose, and the lessons learned from events like the Battlement Creek Fire, we can continue to build and improve on the gear necessary to protect those who protect our lands.

True North Gear proudly serves the wildland firefighter community with a full selection of NFPA 1977-certified fire packs, clothing, and gear. View our selection of fire packs with attached fire shelter cases or shop the fire shelter case attachment.