WASHINGTON, USA — As another wildfire season approaches, the KING 5 Investigators found there’s a piece of equipment that has saved the lives of approximately two dozen firefighters and has worked every time it’s been used, yet not many wildland firefighters in the state of Washington have it.
The product is fire barrier curtains. They’re made of multiple layers of aluminum that roll up and are installed inside the cabs of bulldozers, excavators, brush trucks and other rigs used in wildland firefighting. In the worst-case scenario on the front lines – getting trapped by flames with no way out – the curtains are deployed and fastened with Velcro around the windows. They can withstand temperatures of up to 2800 degrees – the temperature of the hottest wildfires.
“They saved my life. I’m 100 percent sure,” said veteran firefighter Don Andrews from Redding, California. In 2018 he was working inside his dozer on what’s known as the Carr Fire in Northern California. He said it seemed like a run-of-the-mill day at work.
“It seemed like another day in the office,” Andrews said. “I’ve done it for 30 years, and I never saw it coming.”
But the Carr Fire was an event the state of California had never seen before. Record-breaking winds of 160 miles per hour were recorded. The fire created its own weather system that spawned a fire tornado. On July 26, 2018, the fire unexpectedly jumped the Sacramento River and made it to Andrews within eight minutes. He had no time to drive his dozer to safety. A wall of flame was headed his way.
Andrews deployed his fire curtains. It was a new piece of equipment his employer insisted he have.
“There was no time, and it was unexpected,” Andrews said. “It sounded like a 747 landing on top of the dozer. It shook violently. I was engulfed, surrounded, no escape.”
After deploying the curtains, in what he thought was his last act, Andrews called 911.
“I can’t last too long here,” Andrews told the operator. “It’s all on fire around me. All the windows got blown out. Don’t risk someone else’s life to save me.”
Before Andrews hung up. He asked the operator to call his wife of nearly 40 years.
“Can I give you my wife’s phone number? Tell her I love her.”
Andrews made it out with barely a scratch on him. He was back working on the same fire a week later. Two firefighters near him didn’t survive, including a fellow dozer operator who didn’t have fire curtains like those used by Don Andrews.
“I basically was the only one who went through the whole firestorm and survived,” Andrews said.
Aeronautical engineer Jim Roth of Los Angeles created the fire barrier curtains that have worked every single time they’ve been deployed since 2009 when the first firefighters were saved with his curtains. That year three volunteer firefighters in Australia were trapped when a firestorm swept over them. They survived by huddling in their engine and deploying Roth’s curtains.
“It came right at us,” Capt. Peter Smith told reporters at the time. “We went into survival mode.”
“When you see a burned-out shell and you know three people walked to safety and I get to talk to them? It’s great to have new friends, but particularly friends like that who’ve told me, ‘I thought I was going to die, and I got to go home and see my family,” Roth said.
Roth’s engineering career changed in 1994 to focus on creating better survival gear for wildland firefighters after the death of his brother on Storm King Mountain in Colorado. Roger Roth was a 29-year-old smokejumper from Idaho who died alongside 13 other firefighters who unsuccessfully tried to use their fire shelters in a last-ditch effort to save their lives.
Afterward, Jim Roth created a company dedicated to his fallen brother: Storm King Mountain Technologies.
“I was very, very, angry. Just really angry with how he be taken away at such a young age,” Roth said. “I didn’t do anything with fire until I lost my brother, and it totally changed my life.”
Storm King Mountain fire curtains are sold all over the world, including to fire departments throughout California, Texas and Wisconsin, as well as in Australia, Canada and South Africa. The U.S. Forest Service and the Bureau of Land Management are now outfitting some of their apparatus with Roth’s curtains.
But in the state of Washington, fire curtains are not mandatory and not commonly used. None of the state Department of Natural Resource (DNR) engines, bulldozers or excavators have them.
Officials from DNR said their new dozers are state-of-the-art and outfitted specifically with a “full forestry guarding package to protect the equipment and the operator,” wrote Thomas Kyle-Milward, a communications consultant with DNR.
State officials said their focus is on making sure firefighters don’t have a false sense of security (with curtains) and are not put in compromised or unsafe situations in the first place.
“There is much debate within the wildfire community whether or not fire curtains should be used. Many say this leads certain operators to proceed in unsafe conditions. If they were that close to a flame front to need the curtains, the tractor is at risk of catching fire itself,” wrote David Way of DNR. “Our focus has been on training operators to be in safe situations and to rely on our standard escape routes and safety zones to not get in situations where curtains would be needed.”
Burnover survivor Don Andrews said he doesn’t accept that rationale. He said he had no forewarning that record-breaking winds would change the fire direction or that a fire tornado was headed toward him.
“I think it’s crazy. You’d be ludicrous to even show up on a fire without curtains,” Andrews said. “What are your people worth? What are they worth? How easy is it going to be to replace them?”
In the last two decades, firefighters have died in burnover events inside their engines and dozers in states including Washington, California, South Dakota, and Oklahoma. In 2015, three U.S. Forest Service firefighters died working on the Twisp River Fire in Okanogan County, near Winthrop. The men, ages 31, 26, and 20 were trying to escape flames by driving their brush engine out of harm’s way when they were blinded by smoky conditions and veered off the road. Flames engulfed the vehicle. There were no fire curtains to deploy.
Roth said if the engine would have been equipped with curtains, there would have been no reason to try to drive blindly on a windy road, into the fire. With curtains, you can shelter in place and ride a burnover out.
“It was really heartbreaking, to have those three young men die at such an early age, with a product that we’ve got that could have saved them,” Roth said.
Don Andrews, age 65, is still working wildfires in California in a dozer. But he says he wouldn’t do it without the protection of fire curtains. He said that’s an unnecessary risk in an already treacherous profession.
“It only takes one time to make you a believer.”