59News goes inside "last resort" fire shelters - Beckley, Bluefield & Lewisburg News, Weather, Sports

59News goes inside "last resort" fire shelters

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FAYETTE COUNTY -

A national tragedy--- eighteen members of a firefighting crew and one other person were killed Sunday in an Arizona wildfire. They tried to protect themselves by deploying tent shaped survival gear before they were overtaken by the blaze. It was the most firefighters killed battling a wildfire in the U.S. in decades.  While investigators don't know why those shelters did not provide enough protection, 59News got an up close look at how they work.  

These shelters are what experts call a last resort.  Imagine having full firefighting gear on, hat and gloves and carrying a 30 pound backpack full of gear.  Now imagine having twenty-five seconds to get the shelter out of the backpack, build it and take cover. Experts said this is just what fire fighters have to do when faced with making a life or death decision.

"They would be carrying their backpacks, like this with all of their gear in there. The fire shelter is kept underneath and we don't use the real ones to practice because of the cost.  But we use these practice ones here and what you have to do is open it and shake it out and that is when you drop to the ground," Peggy Ainslie, Fire Management Officer with the National Park Services said.

According to experts these shelters can withstand up to 500 degrees Fahrenheit, when coming into contact with a fire. Once those shelters reach 500 degrees Fahrenheit, the glue that holds the shelter together begins to melt and break away. This is why they are only used in "worst case scenarios."

"It is a last resort for survival and that's what people need to know about that. It is not necessarily going to save you from a major fire," Ainslie said.

Ainslie has been fighting wildfires for decades and said she has never had to deploy one of the emergency shelters.  She explained that every year during training the firefighters will practice deploying an emergency shelter.  She said this is extremely helpful hands on training for crews to understand what to do and when to deploy an emergency shelter.