In my feature story in the June issue of The Atlantic, I wrote about a wildfire in Yarnell, Arizona, that trapped 19 firefighters last summer. As the blaze changed direction with unexpected ferocity, they had one chance for survival: lie face down on the ground, cover themselves with a thin aluminum shelter, and let the fire burn over them. Some made it into their shelters, but it didn't matter; the speed and intensity of the fire was too much.
But fire shelters have saved hundreds of people’s lives, and saved hundreds of others from serious burns. I wanted to get a sense of what it’s like to endure a burnover, so I spoke to Lathan Johnson, a Colorado firefighter who survived a shelter deployment on the Little Venus Fire, which burned deep in the backcountry of Wyoming's Shoshone National Forest in July 2006.
“You're not always going to be able to outsmart a fire,” Johnson said. “I thought for sure I'd never have to use a fire shelter, and then I find myself shaking out one, pretty thankful that I had it.”
Johnson was overseeing a small group assigned to relieve another crew that was monitoring the fire several miles up a river valley. They got a late start and didn't hike up the river valley until the afternoon, the most dangerous time for a wildfire, when the sun is hot, relative humidity is low, and the winds are high. “That's when bad things happen on a fire,” Johnson says. “We call it the witching hour.” Indeed, the Wildfire Lessons Learned Center in Tucson, Arizona, studied 115 instances of firefighters trapped by wildfire over the past 20 years and found that half occurred between 2 p.m. and 5 p.m., and all but 12 happened between noon and 6 p.m.
Johnson also knew a weather front would pass through sometime in the afternoon, which usually meant a shift in wind direction. But spotty radio communication deep in the valley kept him from grasping the change in fire activity until he turned a corner on the trail and saw a massive black smoke plume several hundred yards up the canyon. The fire was coming for him and his crew, tearing through stands of bug-killed trees, which spread the fire even faster.
Johnson did a quick headcount and came up one short. He didn't know that one of his firefighters had panicked and split off from the group a few minutes earlier. They didn't have time to look for her: they couldn't outrun the fire, and if they waited any longer to deploy, they might not have enough time to get under their shelters before the wall of flame washed over them. Between them and the fire was a 30-foot rock face, which would give some shelter from the heat and flame.
“We're going to deploy here,” Johnson told the crew. For a moment, he saw their fear and disbelief. But then they set to work, reverting to procedures that they knew well from annual training exercises. The familiar routine seemed to calm them, offering the illusion of control: Unzip the carrying case, pull out the shelter, and shake it open. Step into it, pull it over your head, and lie down with your face close to the ground, where the air is cleanest and coolest. Use your elbows, knees, and feet to pin the shelter down against winds created by the fire that might top 60 mph.