Firefighters are killed every year by wildfires. These scientists want to change that.

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."

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Disney has come under fire for problematic portrayals of non-white and non-western cultures in many of its older movies. They aren't the only one, of course, but since their movies are an iconic part of most American kids' childhoods, Disney's messaging holds a lot of power.

Fortunately, that power can be used for good, and Disney can serve as an example to other companies if they learn from their mistakes, account for their misdeeds, and do the right thing going forward. Without getting too many hopes up, it appears that the entertainment giant may have actually done just that with the new Frozen II film.

According to NOW Toronto, the producers of Frozen II have entered into a contract with the Sámi people—the Indigenous people of the Scandinavian regions—to ensure that they portray the culture with respect.

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Though there was not a direct portrayal of the Sámi in the first Frozen movie, the choral chant that opens the film was inspired by an ancient Sámi vocal tradition. In addition, the clothing worn by Kristoff closely resembled what a Sámi reindeer herder would wear. The inclusion of these elements of Sámi culture with no context or acknowledgement sparked conversations about cultural appropriation and erasure on social media.

Frozen II features Indigenous culture much more directly, and even addressed the issue of Indigenous erasure. Filmmakers Jennifer Lee and Chris Buck, along with producer Peter Del Vecho, consulted with experts on how to do that respectfully—the experts, of course, being the Sámi people themselves.

Sámi leaders met with Disney producer Peter Del Vecho in September 2019.Sámediggi Sametinget/Flickr

The Sámi parliaments of Norway, Sweden and Finland, and the non-governmental Saami Council reached out to the filmmakers when they found out their culture would be highlighted in the film. They formed a Sámi expert advisory group, called Verddet, to assist filmmakers in with how to accurately and respectfully portray Sámi culture, history, and society.

In a contract signed by Walt Disney Animation Studios and Sámi leaders, the Sámi stated their position that "their collective and individual culture, including aesthetic elements, music, language, stories, histories, and other traditional cultural expressions are property that belong to the Sámi," and "that to adequately respect the rights that the Sámi have to and in their culture, it is necessary to ensure sensitivity, allow for free, prior, and informed consent, and ensure that adequate benefit sharing is employed."

RELATED: This aboriginal Australian used kindness and tea to trump the racism he overheard.

Disney agreed to work with the advisory group, to produce a version of Frozen II in one Sámi language, as well as to "pursue cross-learning opportunities" and "arrange for contributions back to the Sámi society."

Anne Lájla Utsi, managing director at the International Sámi Film Institute, was part of the Verddet advisory group. She told NOW, "This is a good example of how a big, international company like Disney acknowledges the fact that we own our own culture and stories. It hasn't happened before."

"Disney's team really wanted to make it right," said Utsi. "They didn't want to make any mistakes or hurt anybody. We felt that they took it seriously. And the film shows that. We in Verddet are truly proud of this collaboration."

Sounds like you've done well this time, Disney. Let's hope such cultural sensitivity and collaboration continues, and that other filmmakers and production companies will follow suit.

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