Essay

Nineteen Fire Shelters and Nineteen Deaths

The Heroic and Horrific Final Moments of the Arizona Firefighters Will Long Be Studied. What We Learn Will Save Future Lives.

“The Prarie got on fire and went with Such Violenc & Speed as to Catch a man & woman & burn them to Death, Several escaped. among other a Small boy who was Saved by getting under a green Buffalow skin….They say the grass was not burnt where the boy sat.” –William Clark, from the Journals of the Lewis and Clark Expedition, 1804, often quoted during fire shelter training for firefighters.

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To many Americans, the news from Arizona seems foreign, darkly surreal: Nineteen elite firefighters gone, killed in a single incident, burned to death despite taking refuge under their fire shelters.

We now know that fire shelters, the one-person fireproof tents that firefighters carry with them into the wild, were a prominent part of the story of Arizona’s Yarnell Fire, just as they were a prominent but often ignored part of many other fire stories. Millions of television viewers have now seen fire shelters demonstrated by news anchors and their guests. The process involves shaking out the shelter, stepping into it as one might step into a cape, and lying face down on the ground, all of which can be accomplished in 20 seconds. The shelter encases its user like a foil cocoon, its shiny outer surface reflecting the heat of television cameras just as it would reflect the heat of raging flames.

But forget about television demonstrations. Put yourself in the scene. I am not asking you to delve into the specific reality of the Yarnell Fire, which is still a matter of investigation. Instead, I am asking you to put yourself in the generalized reality of deploying a fire shelter as flames overwhelm your position.

Imagine that you are in the field with your team. You are not trying to extinguish the fire, but rather to surround it, to trap it within defensible borders, maybe taking advantage of a river on one side and a rocky slope on another and a road on a third side. Your job is to clear away the plants and brush that fuel the fire along a predetermined line on a map, far from a road.

You work with hand tools. The firefighter on your right wields a chain saw. The firefighter on your left has a shovel. You swing a pulaski, a half-ax, half-pick sort of tool named for a firefighter who was badly burned in the Great Fire of 1910, which destroyed three million acres in Washington, Idaho, and Montana. Everyone is sweating, working fast, working hard. All of you long for a bulldozer, but today you work on ground too remote and rugged for machines. You are engaged in the grunt work of those who fight wildfires, the sole purpose of which is to create a firebreak that will contain the fire. It is the kind of work that hardens muscles and thickens calluses.

After some time on the line, you feel a change in the wind. It cools you. It sweeps away sweat.

But then word comes down from a spotter perched on a hill above your team. He is worried. Suddenly you realize that the wind blows from the wrong direction. The wind blows from the direction of the fire.

The order comes to pull back. You and your comrades move quickly—not yet running, but moving athletically over rugged terrain.

The air above thickens with smoke. Downdrafts bring curling waves of smoke to ground level. The team, without anyone muttering an order, picks up the pace.

Now you hear the fire behind you. You can just hear it over your crashing boots and your own breathing and your racing heart, but you can definitely hear it. And yet there is no sense of panic. You have been close to fires before, so the sound is not new. You have trained for this. Three of your comrades have shared stories about outrunning fires.

The pace quickens. You have transitioned from a hard march to a run.

The team has spread out, but it has not broken down. Through smoke, you can make out all of your comrades. One of them stumbles, recovers, and keeps on running. Another throws down a tool. A third ditches a pack. But everyone keeps running.

The smoke reduces daylight to twilight. Heavy breathing turns to panting. The fire’s noise grows louder.

The team comes to an area of thinner brush. The fire shows no sign of tiring. If anything, it has gained momentum. It is very close. It is too close.

Keep running. A comrade ahead doubles over, stooped, gasping. You grab him under the arm, urging him forward. He looks at you, straight into your eyes. Both of you run.

You know you cannot keep this up. Every step is an argument in your brain. But the order to deploy shelters comes as a surprise, passed down from panting man to panting man. Within seconds, all of your comrades have stopped. Some have already pulled their shelters from their belts. Smoke, like thick fog, hangs on the land.

The flames, behind you, do not hesitate.

You scan for a patch of bare ground. All you see is fuel. Nothing here is truly bare. You start to swing your pulaski, to clear a perimeter, but there is no time. You cast the pulaski aside.

You can feel the fire now, its heat behind you. You hear it crackle and hiss. But you also hear a low constant roar as it sucks air into its maw and spits it upwards.

You pull the shelter from your belt in a single motion. You snap it open and shake it out in a second motion. You do a half twisting step into the shelter, crouch slightly to pull its upper end over your head, and then, like your comrades, you lie face down on the ground.

Covered, you stare at the ground, your breath already starting to recover. Your face is so close to the earth that you smell the soil, the sweet organic aroma mixed with the coarse odor of smoke.

The reflective shelter holds back the heat. You tell yourself that everything will be okay.  You know that shelters have saved hundreds of firefighters from otherwise deadly burnovers.

And then, through the sound of the fire itself, you think you hear a scream. From your training, you remember the words of a fire shelter survivor: “The things you hear you don’t want to hear, you wish you’d never heard.”

You hang tight. To run is to die. The shelter is your only chance. And at this point you are struck by the truth that it is in fact only a chance.

Now you feel the fire. You know your shelter is shaped to reflect heat. The older shelters, shaped like pup tents, were less effective. Their flat surfaces offered less protection.  Your shelter has curved surfaces. The engineers say that curved surfaces are best. You feel the heat but you know that most of it remains outside, that anything you feel now, inside your shelter, is a fraction of the hell outside those thin walls.

You also know that you can survive for some time at temperatures over three hundred degrees. You repeat this knowledge to yourself, a mantra, fighting off panic.

The skin on the back of your neck, exposed above your collar, blisters. You smell hair melting. You accept this. You know that many fire shelter survivors are burned. And because you work fires you have been burned before. You have laughed at burns. You tell yourself that the burns will be mild, that the fire will pass quickly and then everything will cool and there will be first aid and maybe, at worst, a ride in a helicopter, a medevac.

The fire’s noise muffles the sound of another scream. Who is it? You cannot tell. You yourself do not scream. Some people scream, while others remain silent.

You remember that fire shelters sometimes fail through delamination. The glue that holds the foil to the underlying fabric vaporizes. In some cases, the vaporized glue has ignited, creating a fireball inside the shelter. But this is a newer shelter. The glue should not vaporize.

A sudden gust comes off the fire, lifting a corner of the shelter. It is as though someone opened the door to an oven. No, a blast furnace. Bright orange light shines through. You tug the shelter snug and the opening closes, but now you know the flames are upon you.  And you know that shelters are not made to survive direct contact with flames for more than a few seconds.

You think for a moment of someone you love—a girlfriend, a wife, a parent, a child, a friend. Things now happen very quickly. The sensation of burning flesh flashes into something unbearable, something beyond pain. You know that you have done everything you were supposed to do. You played it by the book. And now, for an instant, you know that you will die.

And then it is over, your life gone.

Stop here for a moment. Pause. Reflect. After all, you have only read a few hundred words about what a fire death might be. You were not burned. You are not dead. You have your life, your loved ones, your intact flesh.

Why did I, a mere writer, paint such a horrific picture? I painted the picture as a tribute to the dead, as a tribute to those who experienced something that words will never capture.

Men and women will continue to fight wildfires. Some will die, but more will survive because of the lessons learned from the Yarnell Fire, just as many have survived because of lessons learned from Mann Gulch, from Rattlesnake, from Spanish Ranch, from South Canyon, and from a host of other infernos that, for one reason or another, have taken the lives of those who tried to contain them.

The Yarnell Fire investigation will uncover turning points that contributed to the deaths in Arizona—turning points in planning, in weather forecasting, in communications, in establishing routes of retreat. With luck, the investigation will reinvigorate fire shelter research, inspiring further improvements in a device that has evolved over many decades, a device that, inevitably, will offer a last chance to a small number of future firefighters as their position is burned over. And with more luck, a greater number of these burned over firefighters, armed with superior shelters, will survive. Their survival will be the truest of tributes to the 19 men who put their last hopes into something that they knew, going in, would provide them nothing more and nothing less than a final chance to escape from the most desperate of situations.

Bill Streever is the national bestselling author of Heat and Cold. His proceeds from this article will be donated to the United Phoenix Firefighters Association.
Primary editor: T.A. Frank. Secondary Editor: Joe Mathews.
*Photo courtesy of Bill Streever.
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