USA– With flames swirling all around them, four firefighters trapped on a narrow Lake County ridge during the first hour of what would become the state’s third-most-catastrophic wildfire made the last-ditch decision most avoid at all costs: Seek refuge in emergency fire-resistant shelters.
“The ground was on fire,” Cal Fire firefighter Niko Matteoli said. “It didn’t need to be verbalized; we all knew immediately the intensity of the situation and we all just acted. There was no hesitation.”
But at that critical moment, with their faces already burned, firefighters Matteoli, 24, of Santa Rosa and Logan Pridmore found the outer packaging of the standard-issue shelters carried by wildland firefighters across the country had melted. Matteoli removed his gloves and tore away the molten plastic with his bare hands, and eventually he and Pridmore hid from the heat under one aluminum cocoon.
The failure of the shelter packaging to withstand the powerful radiant heat on Sept. 12 at the start of the Valley fire is a key element of a Cal Fire inquiry into the chain of events leading the four firefighters to suffer significant burns. The review is also examining whether tactics need to change in the fourth year of a historic drought in which massive wildfires have defied predictions and models for fire behavior.
The inquiry’s conclusions are eagerly awaited by wildland firefighters throughout the West. About 100,000 firefighters nationwide use shelters similar to the ones carried by the Boggs Mountain helitack crew, including about 6,000 with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“This is not just a Cal Fire incident; it’s national,” said Battalion Chief Scott McLean, a spokesman for the agency’s Northern California region.
All four firefighters — Matteoli, Pridmore, Richard Reiff and Capt. Pat Ward — suffered significant burns to their heads, faces, arms and hands before they got into the shelters. Ward remains hospitalized, while Reiff has been released from the hospital but has yet to return to firefighting. Matteoli and Pridmore have returned to work at the Boggs Mountain helitack base.
The final analysis of the incident will be the culmination of site review and interviews with all personnel involved and will ultimately determine whether tactics or equipment need to change. A Missoula, Mont.-based team of Forest Service researchers that designs and evaluates fire protection gear dispatched a specialist to provide technical analysis on the gear for the investigation.
McLean said the process will take several months before any findings are released.
In parallel, U.S. Forest Service researchers already are collaborating with NASA scientists to develop a more durable, heat- resistant model than the current shelter.
Report stuns firefighters
Firefighters across Sonoma County said they had been anxious to see the official preliminary Cal Fire “green sheet,” a summary of the incident released Oct. 3 detailing how the firefighters became injured. Many said they were stunned to learn about the plastic melting and the equipment failure on the survival tents they will all carry in the next wildland blaze even as the effectiveness of that equipment is under review.
Firefighters, especially those who jump into the thick of it, deal with extreme situations and the equipment must be able to withstand those situations, they said.
Ernie Loveless, who ran Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit for 20 years until he retired five years ago, said he was concerned about the durability of the bags after they were introduced in 2004.
“It seemed strange to have safety stuff like that made out of plastic that will melt in extreme heat,” said Loveless, who is now Schell-Vista fire board president. “I asked: ‘Why do we put stuff in plastic?’ The answer I received from our academy at the time is it was the best material they knew of at the time.”
Immediately after the firefighters were burned on Sept. 12, officials ordered all state firefighters to pull out their shelters and inspect them, reinforcing the recommendation to reinspect the shelters every two weeks.
Fire shelters are rarely used, but firefighters in California deploy this equipment of last resort more than wildland crews in any other state, according to Forest Service data.
Between 2005 and the end of 2014, 82 fire shelters were used by firefighters nationwide — an average of eight times per year. That includes 37 shelter deployments by firefighters in California alone.
These new shelters have helped to save 24 lives and prevent 90 burn injuries since 2005, according to the Forest Service. Several companies make the shelters per Forest Service specifications, and they cost between $300 and $400 and come in two sizes.