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Miscommunication led to shelter deployment during Bridger fire

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PHOTO BY ALLAN HATHAWAY

Town Crier “Briefs from the Region” (1) – 12/7/20

A fire shelter is an aluminum, sleeping bag-type cover used by wildland firefighters as a last resort option when faced with conditions they cannot immediately escape from. They are designed to withstand 500 F and are pulled over a firefighter’s body. They are rarely used and at a press conference following the fire, Gov. Steve Bullock noted that Montana fire crews hadn’t had to use them since 1985. During the Bridger Foothills Fire, which occurred the weekend of Sept. 5, a Helena Helitack crew of four were cornered by flames estimated to be over 2,000 F, and three of the crewmembers were forced to deploy their shelters, where they waited for an estimated five minutes before the fire swept over them. All four survived. A report led by the Custer Gallatin National Forest was released Friday, Dec. 4, outlining the events that led up to the shelter deployment in this case. The report indicates that the crew was unable “to establish consistent, positive communication on the new tactical frequency” beyond a cell phone, according to the analysis. Unable to get to a position where a helicopter could land to evacuate the firefighters, the crew made the decision to deploy their shelters.

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