Sammy Crawford, a seasonal wildlands firefighter with the BLM, practices deploying an emergency fire shelter. The shelter is a tool of last resort for firefighters who can’t otherwise escape advancing flames. (Matthew Copeland/WyoFile)

Step one: Do everything you can today, while you have the luxury of time, to ensure that no one ever needs to deploy an emergency fire shelter.

For Aaron Thompson, assistant fire management officer for the Wind River / Bighorn Basin district of the BLM, that looks something like a high-stakes game of Legos.

You can think of our nationwide, multi-organizational, wildlands firefighting system as a giant collection of those interlocking blocks. For the system to work, the pieces — engine crews, hand crews, sawyer teams, logistics specialists, dispatchers, air tankers, smoke jumpers etc. —  have to be interchangeable among agencies and geographies. They must be able to collect, assemble, disperse, and reassemble again into whatever design is needed to manage any given incident, anywhere in the country, quickly.

This “mutual aid” approach makes the system rapidly scalable and enormously flexible. By enabling adequate personpower, standardizing training and empowering experienced commanders to focus on planning, preparation and coordination, the structure also makes battling wildfire safer for all involved.

As one of those experienced commanders — he started at 19 and has been fighting fire nearly half his life — Thompson’s job, in part, is to build the ideal “Lego set” for his six million acre district.

It’s a dynamic process. Needs change constantly with evolving conditions.

One big adjustment happens each Spring. As fire season surfs the green-up wave northward, seasonal firefighters swell the ranks.

So put the fresh hands through physicals and pack tests. Check their lung capacity, vision and eyesight. Give them EKGs. Train and retrain them on incident command systems, fire-behavior and suppression techniques.

And then, because no amount of planning or preparation will ever make human- or fire-behavior entirely predictable, make sure everyone knows how to use his or her emergency fire shelter.

It may save your life.

If you’re out of time, out of options, and about to be overrun by a wildfire, selecting the right site to shelter is key.

Pick an open spot, away from falling hazards and combustible material.

Group the crew together. Point everyone’s boots toward the fire. Stay on dry land. Steam is far deadlier than dry heat.

Deployed, the fabric shelter should resemble a six-foot long silver Twinkie. But packed it looks more like a small shoebox.

To get from worthless shoebox to lifesaving Twinkie grab the “Left Hand” and “Right Hand” tabs. Shake vigorously. Hold on tight. They’re easily lost to the wind.

Drop your radio and water bottle to free your hands. You’ll lie on top of them. Make sure all of your protective gear makes it in too, including helmet and gloves. Leave everything else for the fire.

Step into the footwell. Pull your body through the rectangular hole in the shelter’s floor until it covers your head and shoulders like a poncho.

Hit the deck, face to the dirt.

Tent the material above your back. Press the partial floor to the ground as best you can with hands, elbows, knees and toes. The shelter will reflect heat, but its most critical life-saving function is trapping breathable air. That requires a good seal.

Press your face to the relatively cool soil. Burrow down, if you can.

Deployment should take no more than 20 seconds, not a lot of time to think.

You’ll have plenty, soon enough. Expect to be alone, in the dark, for an hour or more. It will sound like the apocalypse.

You will feel like you are burning. At times, you may be.

Do not break the seal. Do not panic.

Try not to think about ovens.

Focus, instead, on your training.

And keep reminding yourself that, like the 10 firefighters caught by the Little Venus Fire near Cody in 2006, if you keep your head, you can make it out of your shelter alive.

Two of the 10 fire shelters deployed near the confluence of Anderson Creek and the Greybull River during the Little Venus Fire in July 2006. The deployment site was burned over, completely consuming tools, packs and other materials jettisoned nearby, according to a video. All ten firefighters survived and avoided serious injury inside their shelters. (Shoshone National Forest)

Matthew Copeland is the chief executive & editor of WyoFile. Contact him at or (307) 287-2839. Follow Matt on Twitter at @WyoCope

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