True
NC State

In November 2016, huge forest fires swept through eight southern states in the U.S.

They burned more than 119,000 acres and shrouded regions from Alabama up to West Virginia in smoke. Parks shut down, residents evacuated, and more than 6,300 firefighters were deployed to the area to try to contain these raging fires.

As devastating as these fires were, wildfires are actually pretty common. On average, the United States sees more than 100,000 wildfires every year in fact, the U.S. Wildfire Tracker shows 45 large fires burning in the United States at the time of this writing.


Embers fly around a firefighter at the Sherpa Fire of June 2016 near Santa Barbara, California. Photo by David McNew/AFP/Getty Images

This means that right now, firefighters are putting their lives on the line as they respond to wildland fires. And because of climate change, the fires are becoming more frequent, intense, and long-burning — making them even more dangerous to the men and women whose job it is to try and put them out.

In July 2013, 19 firefighters were killed in an Arizona wildfire at Yarnell Hill, the worst wildfire tragedy in U.S. history since 1933.  

An aerial view of the charred landscape after a wildfire swept through the area on July 7, 2013 in Yarnell, Arizona. Photo by Laura Segall/ Getty Images.

When firefighters are overrun by flames and there is nowhere to escape, as was the case at Yarnell Hill, they have one last-ditch survival tool at their disposal: portable fire shelters.

These emergency shelters have been standard issue for wildland firefighters since 1977. They look a little bit like an aluminized sleeping bag, and they are made of layers of fire-resistant materials, such as fiberglass and silica fabrics, with a reflective outer shell. The current models are designed to withstand radiant heat temperatures of about 500 degrees Fahrenheit to shield against intermittent flames and trap breathable air.

So, if there is no other option available, the firefighters deploy one of these shelters — they only take about 20 seconds to open — climb inside, strap themselves in, and lie face-down to the ground, feet towards the flames. Then, they try to ride out the fire.

A portable shelter used by firefighters as a last-resort safety precaution. Image via NC State/YouTube.

If flames don't come into direct contact with the shelters, these shelters can provide precious minutes of protection. But if flames do directly contact them, they don’t hold up long. And, sadly, they were not enough to save the firefighters at the Yarnell Hill wildfire.

Roger Barker and his colleagues at the Textile Protection and Comfort Center have worked closely with first responders for decades, but after this tragedy, they decided to try and help.  

With funding from FEMA, they set about improving these shelters by developing new fire-resistant materials in their laboratory.

"This is one way that our research could have a real potential benefit in terms of helping protect them and perhaps even save some lives," Barker says.

Of course, this is no easy task.

A laboratory test at NC State. Image via NC State/YouTube.

Any new material has to be light and easily deployable, Barker explains. It also has to insulate so that the temperature of the air inside the shelter stays breathable. It needs to protect the firefighters not only from the radiant heat of the fire close to the shelter, but it also needs to hold up — at least for a few minutes — if flames actually reach the shelter. It also can't release any toxic fumes or gases as it heats up.

"We obviously can’t make anything that you could carry around be [completely] fire-proof," Barker says. But if you can make something hold up for a few minutes (instead of seconds) if it catches fire, he explains, "that would make all the difference for their survivability."

A camera view of the inside of a shelter during a lab test. Image via NC State/YouTube.

The team made several new materials and tested them. The first trials involved only small swatches, then they built entire prototype shelters and tested them inside a simulator — called the Fire Dome — that produces a fireball over 2,000 degrees and big enough to engulf the whole shelter.

So far, the materials they made are holding up.

"We've come up with several candidates of materials. We've fabricated them, and we've tested them," Barker explains, "and so far, we are really pleased with the results that we're seeing."

Next, he says, they need to test their prototypes in the field.

A view of one of the field tests of the new materials. Image via NC State/YouTube.

Working alongside NC State's College of Natural Resources and firefighters, the team plans to test their materials and prototype shelters during controlled or prescribed fires to see how they hold up in as realistic of conditions as possible.

These tests will give the researchers insight into what the conditions are like in an actual forest fire.

In fact, they have already observed a few smaller-scale tests in forests during prescribed burns over a nine-week intense summer camp, and the have learned a lot from their close partnership with working firefighters who actually use these shelters.  

"These are human lives. That’s what’s important to realize. You work in a laboratory, but it affects real people," John Morton-Aslanis, a research associate at the textile center, emphasized.

A firefighter approaches a wildfire in the Santa Cruz Mountains in California in September 2016. Photo by Josh Edelson/AFP/Getty Images.

"This is an extremely important project," said Joe Roise, professor of forestry and environmental resources at the College of Natural Resources. "And if we can get a better product out for them to use, it will change the situation across not just North America, but across the world."

Connections Academy

Wylee Mitchell is a senior at Nevada Connections Academy who started a t-shirt company to raise awareness for mental health.

True

Teens of today live in a totally different world than the one their parents grew up in. Not only do young people have access to technologies that previous generations barely dreamed of, but they're also constantly bombarded with information from the news and media.

Today’s youth are also living through a pandemic that has created an extra layer of difficulty to an already challenging age—and it has taken a toll on their mental health.

According to Mental Health America, nearly 14% of youths ages 12 to 17 experienced a major depressive episode in the past year. In a September 2020 survey of high schoolers by Active Minds, nearly 75% of respondents reported an increase in stress, anxiety, sadness and isolation during the first six months of the pandemic. And in a Pearson and Connections Academy survey of US parents, 66% said their child felt anxious or depressed during the pandemic.

However, the pandemic has only exacerbated youth mental health issues that were already happening before COVID-19.

“Many people associate our current mental health crisis with the pandemic,” says Morgan Champion, the head of counseling services for Connections Academy Schools. “In fact, the youth mental health crisis was alarming and on the rise before the pandemic. Today, the alarm continues.”

Mental Health America reports that most people who take the organization’s online mental health screening test are under 18. According to the American Psychiatric Association, about 50% of cases of mental illness begin by age 14, and the tendency to develop depression and bipolar disorder nearly doubles from age 13 to age 18.

Such statistics demand attention and action, which is why experts say destigmatizing mental health and talking about it is so important.

“Today we see more people talking about mental health openly—in a way that is more akin to physical health,” says Champion. She adds that mental health support for young people is being more widely promoted, and kids and teens have greater access to resources, from their school counselors to support organizations.

Parents are encouraging this support too. More than two-thirds of American parents believe children should be introduced to wellness and mental health awareness in primary or middle school, according to a new Global Learner Survey from Pearson. Since early intervention is key to helping young people manage their mental health, these changes are positive developments.

In addition, more and more people in the public eye are sharing their personal mental health experiences as well, which can help inspire young people to open up and seek out the help they need.

“Many celebrities and influencers have come forward with their mental health stories, which can normalize the conversation, and is helpful for younger generations to understand that they are not alone,” says Champion.

That’s one reason Connections Academy is hosting a series of virtual Emotional Fitness talks with Olympic athletes who are alums of the virtual school during Mental Health Awareness Month. These talks are free, open to the public and include relatable topics such as success and failure, leadership, empowerment and authenticity. For instance, on May 18, Olympic women’s ice hockey player Lyndsey Fry will speak on finding your own style of confidence, and on May 25, Olympic figure skater Karen Chen will share advice for keeping calm under pressure.

Family support plays a huge role as well. While the pandemic has been challenging in and of itself, it has actually helped families identify mental health struggles as they’ve spent more time together.

“Parents gained greater insight into their child’s behavior and moods, how they interact with peers and teachers,” says Champion. “For many parents this was eye-opening and revealed the need to focus on mental health.”

It’s not always easy to tell if a teen is dealing with normal emotional ups and downs or if they need extra help, but there are some warning signs caregivers can watch for.

“Being attuned to your child’s mood, affect, school performance, and relationships with friends or significant others can help you gauge whether you are dealing with teenage normalcy or something bigger,” Champion says. Depending on a child’s age, parents should be looking for the following signs, which may be co-occurring:

  • Perpetual depressed mood
  • Rocky friend relationships
  • Spending a lot of time alone and refusing to participate in daily activities
  • Too much or not enough sleep
  • Not eating a regular diet
  • Intense fear or anxiety
  • Drug or alcohol use
  • Suicidal ideation (talking about being a burden or giving away possessions) or plans

“You know your child best. If you are unsure if your child is having a rough time or if there is something more serious going on, it is best to reach out to a counselor or doctor to be sure,” says Champion. “Always err on the side of caution.”

If it appears a student does need help, what next? Talking to a school counselor can be a good first step, since they are easily accessible and free to visit.

“Just getting students to talk about their struggles with a trusted adult is huge,” says Champion. “When I meet with students and/or their families, I work with them to help identify the issues they are facing. I listen and recommend next steps, such as referring families to mental health resources in their local areas.”

Just as parents would take their child to a doctor for a sprained ankle, they shouldn’t be afraid to ask for help if a child is struggling mentally or emotionally. Parents also need to realize that they may not be able to help them on their own, no matter how much love and support they have to offer.

“That is a hard concept to accept when parents can feel solely responsible for their child’s welfare and well-being,” says Champion. “The adage still stands—it takes a village to raise a child. Be sure you are surrounding yourself and your child with a great support system to help tackle life’s many challenges.”

That village can include everyone from close family to local community members to public figures. Helping young people learn to manage their mental health is a gift we can all contribute to, one that will serve them for a lifetime.

Join athletes, Connections Academy and Upworthy for candid discussions on mental health during Mental Health Awareness Month. Learn more and find resources here.

TikTok about '80s childhood is a total Gen X flashback.

As a Gen X parent, it's weird to try to describe my childhood to my kids. We're the generation that didn't grow up with the internet or cell phones, yet are raising kids who have never known a world without them. That difference alone is enough to make our 1980s childhoods feel like a completely different planet, but there are other differences too that often get overlooked.

How do you explain the transition from the brown and orange aesthetic of the '70s to the dusty rose and forest green carpeting of the '80s if you didn't experience it? When I tell my kids there were smoking sections in restaurants and airplanes and ashtrays everywhere, they look horrified (and rightfully so—what were we thinking?!). The fact that we went places with our friends with no quick way to get ahold of our parents? Unbelievable.

One day I described the process of listening to the radio, waiting for my favorite song to come on so I could record it on my tape recorder, and how mad I would get when the deejay talked through the intro of the song until the lyrics started. My Spotify-spoiled kids didn't even understand half of the words I said.

And '80s hair? With the feathered bangs and the terrible perms and the crunchy hair spray? What, why and how?

Keep Reading Show less
Pets

Ginger the dog reunited with family 5 years after being stolen

Ginger's family never gave up hope, and it payed off.

Ginger the dog was missing for five years before being reunited with her family.

A sweet pup is finally home with her family where she belongs after way too many years away.

Ginger the dog was stolen from her family back in 2017. Her owner, Barney Lattimore of Janesville, Wisconsin, never gave up the hope that his sweet girl was out there somewhere. Whenever he'd see a dog listed on a rescue website or humane society website that even remotely resembled his Ginger, he would inquire about the dog. Unfortunately, it was never her. You'd think that after a while he would stop, but if he had, he likely wouldn't have gotten the sweetest reunion.

Keep Reading Show less

Prior to baby formula, breastfeeding was the norm, but that doesn't mean it always worked.

As if the past handful of years weren't challenging enough, the U.S. is currently dealing with a baby formula crisis.

Due to a perfect storm of supply chain issues, product recalls, labor shortages and inflation, manufacturers are struggling to keep up with formula demand and retailers are rationing supplies. As a result, families that rely on formula are scrambling to ensure that their babies get the food they need.

Naturally, people are weighing in on the crisis, with some throwing out simplistic advice like, "Why don't you just do what people did before baby formula was invented and just breastfeed?"

That might seem logical, unless you understand how breastfeeding works and know a bit about infant mortality throughout human history.

Keep Reading Show less