Editor's Note -- Investigative reporters with The Times-News in Idaho spent several months probing wildland firefighting. The following is one of their many stories.
Dec. 15--TWIN FALLS -- When Roger Roth first explained what a fire shelter was to his brother, Jim told his younger sibling never to get in one.
"Don't trust your life in this thing," Jim, an aerospace engineer, told Roger, a McCall smokejumper. "It sounds like a death trap."
But just one month later, Jim received a phone call that would forever change his world. His 29-year-old brother was killed fighting the 1994 South Canyon Fire near Glenwood Springs, Colo. He died inside a fire shelter.
David Turbyfill, whose son Travis was a member of the Granite Mountain Hotshots and died on the Yarnell Hill Fire, talks about the need for a better fire shelter that can withstand higher temperatures to save firefighters at his business on Thursday Oct. 17, 2013 in Prescott, Ariz.
Federal officials began requiring firefighters to carry fire shelters in 1977. The mandate went into place after three firefighters died in the 1976 Battlement Creek Fire in Colorado.
While suppressing the flames, the firefighters left their fire shelters back at base camp thinking they wouldn't need them. When the winds changed, however, the firefighters were exposed to the heat and flames.
Invesitgations after the fire showed the firefighters could have survived if they used fire shelters.
Since then, the U.S. Forest Service made several improvements to what was first used in the 1970s, but officials in and out of the agency have repeatedly raised questions about the shelter's effectiveness, particularly when the shelter hits direct flame.
What are They?
If a firefighter finds himself where he needs to deploy a shelter, he must drop his pack, unzip and shake the shelter out. He must then step into the shelter and lay down with the shelter completely surrounding him to trap breathable air inside the shelter. Some firefigthers describe this action grimly as "shake and bake."
The shelters are made of a double layered blanket with materials, like aluminum foil, Kevlar and Nomex, to shield firefighters from radiant and direct heat.
How do they work? Shelters reflect almost 95 percent of radiant heat, or heat coming from the sun. With direct heat in the form of flames, the shelter can withstand 500 degrees Fahrenheit. Anything hotter and the shelter begins to melt and no longer protects the firefighter.
The shelters -- weighing about 4.4 pounds -- are packed into a plastic case that hangs from the waist. Firefighters train to deploy a shelter in less than 30 seconds, but supervisors warn firefighters to deploy them only as a last resort. Many firefighters accept their fire shelters promising to never use one.
Still grieving his brother's death weeks after the South Canyon Fire, Roth began searching for as much information on fire shelters as he could find.
He went to the Missoula Technology and Development Center, the U.S. Forest Service's top source for information and technology on wildfire resources but found nothing.
"No one could tell me how long the shelters would last in what temperatures or if they could withstand direct heat," he said. "They could only tell me they were using the same shelter that had been issued in 1977."
Roth gathered a volunteer group of the nation's top flame resistant experts, including one from NASA, to begin designing a better fire shelter.
They built prototypes and collected data and by November 1994, they invited Missoula Technology and Development Center officials to look at their work.
"They said, 'Thank you, but we're the experts,'" Roth said. "They wanted nothing to do with us."
Discouraged but not defeated, Roth decided to turn his fire shelter research into a company. He named it Storm King Mountain Technologies, named after the mountain where his brother died.