Pagami Creek fire crew forced to deploy emergency fire shelters

Pagami Creek fire crew forced to deploy emergency fire shelters

23 September 2011

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USA — Six Superior National Forest wilderness rangers may have saved their own lives on Sept. 12 when the Pagami Creek fire overwhelmed their position and they were forced to deploy the emergency fire shelters they’re required to carry on their belts.

It might be the first time in Minnesota that the devices have actually been used in an emergency.

Mark Van Every, Kawishsiwi District ranger for the Superior National Forest, confirmed Thursday that the extremely rare shelter deployment occurred.

The six wilderness rangers were in two groups, searching campsites and bays on Insula Lake to evacuate any campers who were suddenly in the way of the growing fire. Van Every said fire officials were trying to stay two days ahead of the fire, moving campers along to safer spots. But the fire closed in on Insula in a matter of minutes at noon on Sept. 12.

Van Every said all of the six U.S. Forest Service employees have asked not to be identified. “They have been through a lot and need to move on now,” he said.

One group of four rangers, who also are trained as firefighters, landed their canoes on a small rock island where they covered themselves with the heat- and flame-resistant shelters. The second group was on a different part of the lake and were paddling when they determined they were unable to out-paddle the front of the fire. They jumped into the lake, with lifejackets on, and covered themselves with the shelters.

The fire, which spawned a giant mushroom cloud of smoke called a plume, at that point was creating its own wind, greater than 50 mph at times and spurring 4-foot waves and whitecaps on the lake.

“It wasn’t so much that they were overwhelmed by flame. But the burning embers were everywhere. Some described it as a downpour, but instead of rain it was burning embers,” Van Every said. “Another said the wind was so strong it was blowing the burning embers sideways; that it looked like tracer bullets from a machine gun flying through the air.”

If the shelters didn’t save their lives, they at least prevented severe burns and reduced smoke inhalation, officials said.

“They all said that their training just kicked in and they knew it was time. They described it as like they were watching the annual training video and going through the steps,” Van Every said.

The rangers — who normally patrol the Boundary Waters Canoe Area Wilderness to enforce rules, maintain campsites and portages and help anyone in need — spent about an hour inside the shelters with “intermittent” radio communication with fire officials. A pilot circling overhead couldn’t see either group because of the smoke.

“The first thing they wanted to know was whether any members of the public were still in need of any help,” Van Every said. ‘They went right back to doing their jobs.”

After the front of the fire moved past them, the men spent the night camped on the island and were picked up by Forest Service float plane Tuesday morning.

Some of the firefighting grunts who battle forest fires sometimes refer to the emergency fire shelters they carry on their belts as “baked potatoes,” in part because they look like the aluminum foil wrapped on potatoes and in part because, as the joke, goes, if you ever need to use it you may still end up baked.

In reality, though, the fire shelters offer very effective protection from heat, flame and flying embers and have saved dozens of lives since 1977 when they have become standard equipment for wildland firefighters across the U.S.

The shelters have been used many times in western state fires, usually with success, but not always. In 2001 the Thirtymile fire in Washington state overcame four firefighters who died despite trying to deploy their shelters. A report cited several mistakes and missteps in the deaths, but it also led to development of more-

effective shelters.

In the situation on Insula Lake, Van Every said, crews were simply surprised by a roiling fire expected to be much farther away. It appears they did exactly the right thing, he said.

Jim Sanders, supervisor of the Superior National Forest, said an extensive review on the shelter deployment has been conducted and the final report will be available at a later date.

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