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19 wildfire firefighters died in Arizona today, and the articles mention that they appear to have used their fire shelters:

the 19 firefighters were found in an area that also had 19 fire shelters deployed. Some of those found were inside a shelter, which is typically used as a last resort to withstand the fire as it blows over. Some of the crew members were found outside the shelters.

I have read other cases of firefighters deploying their shelters and still dying. I cannot recall a case where the shelter is said to have saved the life of the user.

The Wikipedia entry tellingly describes them as a safety device of last resort.

So, my question is, do these fire shelters save lives?

I can think of several possibilities:

  1. Yes they do, but acts thereof are underreported for whatever reason.
  2. Yes they can, but because they are viewed as a tool of last resort they tend to be deployed in situations that are already beyond all hope. If used in less extreme fires they would be highly effective.
  3. No, they are ineffective.

(USGovt fire shelter summary)

UPDATE - in addition to the answer below, the following quote comes from a new article on the event by the Wall Street Journal:

[Wally Covington, professor of fire ecology at Northern Arizona University] added that the fire shelters used by firefighters offer limited protection—usually no more than 10 minutes or so under what he called moderate fire conditions. "But under an extreme condition, they may not work," he said, adding suffocation from smoke is often the cause of fatalities.

  • 2
    the website you mention states explicitly that "Fire shelters will not guarantee a firefighter's survival in an entrapment situation. Firefighters should do everything they can to avoid situations where they need to deploy a fire shelter. ". As with everything, no doubt they're designed for protection during limited time only, if that time is exceeded you're fried anyway. So 4: they can work, but don't rely on them saving you for long periods. – jwenting Jul 1 '13 at 7:26
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    @jwenting - in the 21st century no one is foolish enough to claim 100% efficacy when saving lives is involved. I would be shocked if they used anything besides carefully measured words. That being said, some rigorous product testing should be expected. And I want to hear some success stories... if there are any. – Drew Jul 1 '13 at 7:36
  • Could you please try finding another source for the article? The link you posted doesn’t work – it redirects to an error page. – Konrad Rudolph Jul 1 '13 at 9:57
  • @KonradRudolph - added the new Wiki article and another link to the original quoted article from AZ – Drew Jul 1 '13 at 13:57
  • What is the claim you want examined, and who makes that claim? – user5582 Jul 1 '13 at 16:03
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A report from 1987 had 4/5 firefighters surviving entrapment by using a fire shelter. This report was found at the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center, when searching for events with deployed fire shelters. In this case shortly after they deployed their shelters water and fire retardant was dropped on their position by helicopter, and they were rescued at 45mins.

The heat was so intense they reportedly rolled around on the ground to avoid burning from conduction from the hot ground. The firefighter who died was found half out of his shelter.

There are 25 incidents listed on the search page where fire shelters were deployed, with a total of 374 people involved and 2 fatalities. Due to the interface for searching I only totalled results with a Yes for fire shelters being deployed. Some of the entries had a specific number entered instead of a yes/no and I didn't include them in the count as I didn't have time to search through all the different terms separately.

So yes, it looks like fire shelters save lives, but their use to save lives is common enough that it isn't reported on by the mainstream media.

  • 4
    Just like you rarely see an article about how someone in a car crash survived because they were wearing their seatbelt and the airbag deployed correctly. It's not news. – Shadur Jul 24 '13 at 9:39
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Shelters have saved lives and there are a number of fire reports that can be read to provide more information on both fatalities and survival. You can read specifics on the National Interagency Fire Center Page, Wildfire Lessons Learned Center and other such web links. You Tube even has a number of videos on incidents such as the Butte Fire, Little Venus, Ahorn, Mackenzie Fire, Dude Fire and others. There have been about 1,100 deployments of the old-style fire shelter. Roughly half of these deployments have been precautionary, meaning that the people involved would probably not have sustained significant injury even without the shelters. An estimated 275 of the deployments are considered to have prevented moderate to serious burns and an estimated 275 are considered to have saved the lives of the occupants. Twenty people have died in fully or partially deployed fire shelters. Some victims did not get into their shelters in time; others left their shelters too soon. In some cases the conditions were too severe for the shelters to provide adequate protection. Since 2005, current model fire shelters were deployed 138 times, resulting in 90 burn and/or smoke-inhalation preventions and 21 lives saved, according to data compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center. Fire shelters were deployed seven times as a precautionary measure. In that time, 21 people died while using fire shelters. Shelters should never be used as a tool to make tactical decisions or to plan on using- it is a last resort for when things went seriously wrong. There is no guarantee of them saving you. That being said, they have saved a number of lives on the line. Hope that helps.

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    Welcome to Skeptics!. Rather than asking all of the readers to search for the web-references, please hunt them down yourself, and include a link and preferably a key quote to explain why you think it is relevant. Also explain who did the estimates and where your figures are from. – Oddthinking Jun 27 '14 at 7:18

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