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04 September 2011

Veld fires kill several voluntary fire fighters each year in South Africa. How do we prevent this from happening in future?

Each year voluntary fire fighters and citizens die in South Africa as a result of  raging veld fires. Some die while fighting veld fires others when trapped by flames while trying to protect their personal belongings or in many cases they are just swamped by flames trying to flee from the inferno.  These people die as a result of smoke inhalation, hot gases and serious burns.  I can also remember that several women died last year trying to extinguish a veld fire in a rural village.  The main reason for these deaths appears to be the sudden change in wind direction whereby people get trapped and then engulfed by flames and smoke. The sudden change in wind direction is not a rare occurrence when fighting fires.  I am not going to go into detail here but one should always have several escape routes when fighting fires.  What happens if I am trapped and there is no way out?


In the US all fire fighters working to extinguish bush and veld fires are issued with a Fire Shelter.  No bush or veld firefighter (farmers, farm workers, voluntary fire fighters) should be without a personal fire shelter! In an emergency situation, the fire shelter could save a life. The new-generation fire shelter provides increased protection from radiant and convective heat in bush and veld firefighter entrapment situations.

A fire shelter is a safety device of last resort used by bush and veld firefighters when trapped by wildfires. It is designed to reflect radiant heat, protect against convective heat, and trap breathable air (most firefighters deaths are from inhaling hot gases) in an attempt to save the firefighter's life.

It must be clearly understood that a fire shelter is safety device of last resort and that general safety when fighting fires are of the utmost priority.

Protection of human life, both firefighters and civilians, is first priority. When arriving on a scene a fire crew must establish a safety zone(s), escape routes, verify communication is in place and designate lookouts. This allows the firefighters to engage a fire with options for a retreat should their current situation become unsafe. Although other safety zones should be designated, areas already burned generally provide a safe refuge from fire provided they have cooled sufficiently, are accessible, and have burned enough fuels so as to not reignite. Briefings must be done to inform new fire resources of hazards and other pertinent information.

Great emphasis is placed on safety and preventing entrapment, or a situation where escape from the fire is impossible. Prevention of this situation is reinforced with a list of watch out situations for firefighters to be aware of, which warn of potentially dangerous situations. South Africans fighting veld fires should in future carry a fire shelter as a last resort. In this inescapable situation, the shelter will provide limited protection from radiant and convective heat, as well as superheated air.


Fire shelters are constructed layers of aluminum foil, woven silica, and fiberglass. When deployed, its maximum dimensions are approximately 218.44 cm x 39.37 cm x 78.74 cm and is shaped like a mound. When the shelter is packed into its carrying case, its dimensions are approximately 21.59 cm x 13.97 cm x 10.16 cm. The New-Generation fire shelter was developed in 2002 to replace the old style fire shelter which is shaped like a pup-tent and has a carrying case. Its dimensions are smaller than that of the old-Generation shelter.

The first known use of a fire shelter was in 1804, when a boy was saved from a prairie fire when his mother covered him with a fresh bison hide. Clark noted in his journal that the fire did not burn the grass around the boy.

Although fire shelters might save lives in South Africa, we should bear in mind that voluntary fire fighters should at all times focus on  safety and preventing entrapment, or a situation where escape from a fire is impossible.  Take care out there when fighting veld and bush fires in South Africa!!

- SAWDIS

Resources:
  1. Wikipedia
  2. The Fire Store
  3. National Fire Fighter Corp.