Scientists Try To Break The Cycle Of Firefighters Dying In Wildfires Each Year

Portable fire shelters were a standard issue for wildland firefighters since 1977. When firefighters find themselves out of options, these emergency shelters provide a last-ditch line of defense. Made of layers of fiberglass or other fire-resistant materials like silica fabrics, they feature a reflective external shell and look similar to an aluminized sleeping bag. They are designed to resist high temperatures of approximately 500 degrees Fahrenheit, provided that they do not directly touch the shelters.

Unfortunately, these emergency shelters proved to be inadequate for 19 firefighters, who died at the Yarnel Hill wildfire in July 2013 — the worst wildlife tragedy in American history ever since 1933.

Following the tragedy, Roger Barker together with his colleagues at the Textile Protection and Comfort Center decided to try and lend a hand.

The team came up with various innovative materials and tested them, using only little swatches. After that, they designed complete prototype shelters and tested those in the Fire Dome, a simulator that produces more than 2,000 degrees of fireball and is large enough to swallow up the entire shelter. Their materials are, so far, holding up.

Working closely with firefighters and the NC State University College of Natural Resources, the team is planning to test the materials and their prototype shelters in regulated or prescribed flames to ascertain if they can possibly withstand as genuine of situations as possible. This will provide researchers information on what a forest fire is like in actual situations.

Truth is they already have performed some small-scale trials in forests under prescribed burns throughout a nine-week extreme summer camp. Their teamwork with firefighters actually using these shelters has also provided them with plenty of additional information.

This project is extremely important according to Robert Roise, forestry and environmental resources professor at the College of Natural Resources. By coming up with a product that firefighters can use effectively they hope to change the situation not only across the United States but all-around the world. 

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