Portable shelters considered 'last resort' for firefighters

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by STEVE STOLER

wfaa.com

Posted on July 1, 2013 at 5:23 PM

Updated Wednesday, Jan 8 at 12:14 PM

MCKINNEY –– The Hot Shots are the Navy Seals of firefighters. 

They often hike for miles into the wilderness with chainsaws and backpacks as they build lines of protection between people and fires. Sometimes they stay on the side of a mountain for days. There are about a hundred such crews across the country.

The Granite Mountain Hotshots, which lost 19 of its 20 members battling a wildfire sparked by lightning this weekend, are based out of Prescott, Ariz. 

On the city's website, it says they undergo 80 hours of training each year and must be in peak physical condition. Emergency fire shelters are the last line of defense for crews battling wildfires. The cocoon-like shelters take only seconds to deploy.

It's something the Prescott Granite Mountain Hotshots practiced time and time again. When the wind shifted, it was their best chance for survival.

In training tests, firefighters are given 30 seconds to get into the fire resistant shelter and hit the ground. The Hot Shots are required to carry them. 

"I'll bury my face to the ground, and use the ground pretty much as a filter," said McKinney Fire Captain Michael "Spanky" Stiltz, as he demonstrated how to use a shelter.

Once deployed, the portable fire shelters allow trapped firefighters to breathe their own air. It's designed to reflect heat. But according to the training manual, when the material reaches 500 degrees, the glue that bonds the layers begins to break down. The layers of the shelter can separate, allowing the foil to be torn by turbulent winds.

"It's going to be hot," said Stiltz. "You're not going to breathe very well. You're going to have to be able to keep your wits about you and not panic."

As a regional fire coordinator with the Texas A&M Forest Service, John Fugitt has been on the front lines of huge wild fires across Texas and the country. He carries a fire shelter as standard equipment. 

"It is definitely a last resort," said Fugitt. "You know, if you use the shelter, something has gone awry, terribly wrong. But never use that as an insurance policy to accomplish tactics."

Trapped firefighters have survived by using their shelters, staying inside from five to 90 minutes. But the experts say with the intensity of the Arizona fires, there's little chance they would have helped.

Email sstoler@wfaa.com

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