Back in 2013, 19 firefighters died in Arizona because their emergency shelters didn’t protect them. NASA scientists realized materials in a space project they were working on might be useful, so they teamed up with the U.S. Forest Service (USFS) to help design a safer emergency fire shelter that would better protect firefighters.

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NASA engineer Mary Beth Wusk said in a press release, “The huge loss of those firefighters made some of us at NASA think about how our research might help improve firefighter survivability.” NASA researchers were working on “flexible thermal protection systems for inflatable heat shields,” and realized the material that could someday help astronauts enter the atmosphere safely could also save lives here on Earth. They contacted USFS and initiated the CHIEFS program, or Convective Heating Improvement for Emergency Fire Shelters, to adapt the space technology for fire shelters firefighters use if they get trapped while battling wildfires.

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It’s not as simple as just turning heat shields into shelters. Emergency fire shelters have to be small and lightweight so firefighters can carry them easily. Shelters have to guard against flames, heat, and gases.

USFS Fire Shelter Project lead Anthony Petrilli used to be a firefighter. In 1994 he and seven others successfully used fire shelters to survive a fire, but 14 other firefighters died. Petrilli said, “Our project is trying to take advantage of advances in materials that may offer better protection by slowing the transfer of heat through the shelter layers.”

NASA fire shelter designs have already undergone several tests, including in a controlled burn in Canada forests. While prototypes are still being tested, engineers anticipate turning in results to USFS early next year. Shelter prototypes could be delivered to firefighters in the summer of 2017, and if all goes well an updated shelter will be ready in 2018.


Images via U.S. Forest Service/Ian Grob