Critics blast US Forest Service for old fire shelter design

Fire shelters designed in 2002 are still being used by wildland firefighters today and advocates say the equipment needs a major upgrade.
Published: Jun. 29, 2023 at 5:36 PM MST
Email This Link
Share on Pinterest
Share on LinkedIn

PHOENIX (3TV/CBS 5) — It’s been 10 years since 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots crawled inside their U.S. Forest Service-designed fire shelters in a last-ditch effort to escape death. The shelters did not save them. The same shelters remain in use today, and critics told Arizona’s Family Investigates that it is long past time for a new shelter design. “It’s time to look at it again. It’s been 10 years since the Granite Mountain Hotshots got killed,” said James Roth, an aeronautical engineer who worked for years on a new fire shelter in the mid-1990s.

It was a different tragedy that drove Roth to the particular piece of wildland firefighting equipment. “What really got me started in working with wildland firefighters was the day that I lost my brother,” said Roth. His brother, Roger Roth, was an elite smoke jumper. He was one of 14 firefighters killed in the South Canyon Fire in Colorado in 1994. “Back in 1994, they were using a fire shelter that was mis-designed,” said Roth. “We did come up with a better fire shelter than what my brother had. And we got in a competition with the U.S. Forest Service lab. In the end, they decided to choose their own fire shelter tent,” he said.

Peeples Valley was spared, but over 100 structures in Yarnell were destroyed. Worse than that, 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were killed.

The Forest Service began using its new shelter, known as the M-2002, in the year 2002. It was the M-2002 that the Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed in the Yarnell Hill Fire in 2013. “They all had the new fire shelter. But it still didn’t save them,” said Roth.

After the Yarnell Hill Fire deaths, the Forest Service considered adopting new shelters. According to a statement by the Forest Service, “The review team then tested hundreds of alternative shelters of various materials, weights, and shapes. None of the tested shelters showed better results and met the desires of the firefighters, so it was decided to continue the use of the M-2002 Fire Shelter.”

Officials from the Forest Service say they have made improvements to the M-2002 shelter. “There is a problem that needs to be fixed with those shelters,” said Jason Ramos, a retired smoke jumper and author of the book, “Smokejumper.”

He told Arizona’s Family Investigates that wildland firefighters would be better off not carrying the current shelters at all. “If firefighters knew exactly what they’re capable of doing, they would make different decisions on operations,” he said.

Wildland firefighters in Canada and Australia do not carry fire shelters. In its response to questions from Arizona’s Family Investigates, the Forest Service stated, “All firefighters are reminded that carrying a fire shelter should never be considered an alternative to safe firefighting. Because shelters are best at reflecting radiant heat, firefighters are also trained to deploy shelters in areas where there would be minimal direct contact with flames. Escaping to a safety zone is always preferred as the fire shelter cannot guarantee survival during an entrapment.”

James Roth argues that the Forest Service needs to take a new approach and develop a shelter that would work in every situation. “We need a piece of equipment that’s going to be bullet-proof in any wildland fire burn over. There’s new high-temperature materials coming out now in the defense area that I think we could use for a better fire shelter,” said Roth.

The materials Roth came up with are used as fire shields and fire curtains on fire trucks and other machinery used in fighting wildfires. He says 21 people have contacted him to say his fire curtain saved their lives. You can read the entire U.S. Forest Service statement to Arizona’s Family Investigates here.

See a spelling or grammatical error in our story? Please click here to report it.

Do you have a photo or video of a breaking news story? Send it to us here with a brief description.

Do you have a story you want us to investigate? Tell us about it by contacting us.