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nasa heat shields

NASA Heat Shields Set to Save Firefighters’ Lives

One of the worst firefighter tragedies in history compelled NASA researcher, Mary Beth Wusk, to help develop a better emergency fire shelter. Wusk saw a news article on the Yarnell Hill Fire in Arizona in 2013, where a team of 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots firefighters was overrun with fire. The team deployed their emergency fire shelters, but unfortunately did not survive. Wusk thought the needs of an advanced fire shelter matched the needs of a project she was currently working on at NASA: Flexible thermal protection systems for space vehicle re-entry.

After some initial research and email correspondence, Wusk and co-researcher, Anthony Calomino, were put in touch with the Forest Service’s National Technology and Development Center. It turns out the Forest Service was already searching for new materials to construct an improved emergency fire shelter. NASA and the Forest Service formed a joint team, called CHIEFS (Convective Heating for Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters). CHIEFS began testing materials and pattern designs with the goal of putting a new design into service by 2018.

NASA heat shields

Real-world test of the new Emergency Fire Shelter prototype during a controlled burn

 

The Future of NASA Heat Shields in Firefighting

Initial test results proved that the materials performed well, but the design itself had some flaws. Flames were still able to penetrate the shelter via tiny seams in the material or under the bottom.  Though NASA’s contribution to the project is coming to an end, the Forest Service is continuing to evaluate additional designs using the NASA developed materials. The Forest Service plans to test these designs this coming fire season. They are hoping the winning design will be ready for firefighter use by their 2018 goal.

 

 

NASA Video on the new Emergency Shelter Technology

 

 

History of the Emergency Fire Shelter

Innovation Out of Tragedy

Firefighting remains a dangerous occupation, and on occasion firefighters still pay the ultimate sacrifice. Our country has a longstanding history of learning from our tragedies, and planning how to prevent them from happening in the future.  The Loop Fire near Sylmar, California, in 1966 is an example of a deadly wildfire which led to a revolution in fire policy and safety protocols.  That fire, which took the lives of 12 firefighters, yielded greater understanding and safety awareness of the perils posed by certain types of woodland terrain.  It also prompted requirements related to lookouts, checklists, and equipment standards that are still in use today.

 

Sources:

https://www.nasa.gov/feature/langley/nasa-works-with-us-forest-service-to-improve-fire-shelters

https://www.nasa.gov/langley/nasa-technology-may-help-protect-wildland-firefighters

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Yarnell_Hill_Fire

http://www.latimes.com/science/la-na-nasa-fire-shelters-20151026-story.html

Gatlinburg Disaster: 700 Structures Lost, 13 Fatalities

Chimney Tops 2 Fire Update

Tough questions were abundant at this morning’s press conference as word fell that a thirteenth victim has been identified in the aftermath of this week’s Chimney Tops 2 fire. Fire and Emergency managers tried to dodge the press’s questions regarding whether they waited too long to evacuate residents in the Gatlinburg and surrounding areas, and whether lives were lost because of it. The truth of the situation is this fire was an anomaly. It was a first of its kind for its fire regime.

The fire creeped around in rocky areas of the steep mountains, south of Gatlinburg, for a few days and warranted fire crews to manage it with an aerial attack. An extreme wind event fanned the fire, knocked down power lines, and created ember starts and abundant spot fires equaling utter chaos. Unfortunately, it appears that with power outages and cell service down, emergency notifications were not received by all residents with disastrous implications. Door to door evacuations by the local authorities couldn’t cover the vast areas in impending danger. The rapidly spread ignited leaf litter and ground fuels from wind gusts reported as high as 87 mph, fueled by prolonged drought, (not surprisingly) from house to house.

The Southern Area Red Team in charge of the damage assessment has updated the Incident Page stating, “There have been a number of confirmed fatalities (13 reported as of this morning) and over 700 confirmed structures lost. This fire hit the communities of Gatlinburg, Pigeon Forge, and surrounding areas adjacent to Great Smoky Mountains National Park hard as they were preparing for both Christmas and the final few weeks of a bustling tourist season.” It was truly a disaster never before seen by this part of the country and only rarely seen nationwide.

Map of the Chimney Tops 2 Fire and surrounding spot fires in Sevier County, TN


Chimney Tops 2 Fire Outlook

Southern Area Red Team type-1 incident management team has command of the fire and has been focused on public safety, infrastructure, and assessing damages. The fire has not spread since early in the week after the incident area received precipitation with frontal passage Wednesday. Minimal fire behavior and smoldering is expected for the three day fire forecast.  Weather-wise, a ridge of high pressure will produce dry conditions in the fire area through Saturday before wetting rains are forecast to return late in the weekend.

14,000 people remain displaced by the fires, with almost 4000 residents still without power. Some business owners and evacuees have been escorted back into some areas but most remain under mandatory evacuation for now. Three Red Cross Shelters remain active in the area with 219 people still utilizing them. Red Cross has delivered over 10,000 meals this week in Sevier County according to their website. We’re happy to report that the organization has also received hundreds of thousands in relief donations.


Chimney Tops 2 Fire Facts
  • As of: December 2nd, 2016
  • Location: Sevier County, TN
  • Size: 17,859
  • Containment: 0%
  • Fire Behavior: Minimal fire spread and smoldering.
  • Structures Impacted: 1000 (Estimated)
  • Structures Destroyed: 700 (confirmed but expected to rise)
  • Evacuations: Are in place, 14,000 residents and visitors impacted
  • Fatalities: 13
  • Incident Page: http://inciweb.nwcg.gov/incident/5112/