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Wildfire Managers Review New Analysis Of Bridger Foothills Fire Incident

A sign reads "caution: steep slope and curve head" on a gravel road that winds through a burn site from the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman, Montana in Sept. 2020.
Rachel Cramer/Yellowstone Public Radio
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Smoke lingers in the air in an area burned the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman, Montana on Sept. 23, 2020.

State officials are evaluating their protocols after three firefighters were burned over while working on the Bridger Foothills Fire near Bozeman this September. The entire crew survived, but only two of them were carrying emergency fire shelters. A detailed analysis of the incident was released Friday, Dec. 4.

Fire shelters look like thin silver sleeping bags. They’re made of an aluminum foil-woven silica outer shell designed to withstand direct flames and 2,000 degrees of heat for about a minute.

“That is your last resort measure to protecting your life," said Hoyt Richards with the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

He was a line officer for the lightning caused Bridger Foothills Fire, which burned over 7,000 acres this fall and destroyed 28 homes.

Wildland firefighters are required to carry fire shelters in the field. But one of the three firefighters trapped by a flame front on the Bridger Ridge forgot to put a shelter in their pack.

When the wildfire cut off their escape route to a safety zone, two of the firefighters shared a shelter, which is designed for one person. They were not able to seal the shelter, and neither were completely covered as the fire burned past them.

A detailed analysis released Friday says all three firefighters were able to walk to safety and received medical treatment for smoke inhalation, heat exhaustion and minor burns.

When asked if the DNRC will change protocols to double check firefighters have shelters included in their packs, Richards said, “Absolutely.”

He said the DNRC will also look at ways to improve its firefighter training.

Mary Erickson, superintendent of the Custer Gallatin National Forest, said an analysis of the incident is intended to help the firefighting community learn what led to a situation and then “use that as a learning tool afterwards to reflect on how might we do things differently in the future.”

Erickson said these kinds of analyses are shared across the state’s firefighting community and posted to the national Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center.

A public information officer with the Custer Gallatin National Forest said, not including the two deployments during the Bridger Foothills Fire, there have been 172 fire shelter deployments across the U.S. since 2005, including 5 in Montana. The DNRC’s last shelter deployment was in 1985 on the Butte Fire in the Salmon Challis National Forest.