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

Courtesy of Amita Swadhin
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In 2016, Amita Swadhin, a child of two immigrant parents from India, founded Mirror Memoirs to help combat rape culture. The national storytelling and organizing project is dedicated to sharing the stories of LGBTQIA+ Black, indigenous people, and people of color who survived child sexual abuse.

"Whether or not you are a survivor, 100% of us are raised in rape culture. It's the water that we're swimming in. But just as fish don't know they are in water, because it's just the world around them that they've always been in, people (and especially those who aren't survivors) may need some help actually seeing it," they add.

"Mirror Memoirs attempts to be the dye that helps everyone understand the reality of rape culture."

Amita built the idea for Mirror Memoirs from a theater project called "Undesirable Elements: Secret Survivors" that featured their story and those of four other survivors in New York City, as well as a documentary film and educational toolkit based on the project.

"Secret Survivors had a cast that was gender, race, and age-diverse in many ways, but we had neglected to include transgender women," Amita explains. "Our goal was to help all people who want to co-create a world without child sexual abuse understand that the systems historically meant to help survivors find 'healing' and 'justice' — namely the child welfare system, policing, and prisons — are actually systems that facilitate the rape of children in oppressed communities," Amita continues. "We all have to explore tools of healing and accountability outside of these systems if we truly want to end all forms of sexual violence and rape culture."

Amita also wants Mirror Memoirs to be a place of healing for survivors that have historically been ignored or underserved by anti-violence organizations due to transphobia, homophobia, racism, xenophobia, and white supremacy.

Amita Swadhin

"Hearing survivors' stories is absolutely healing for other survivors, since child sexual abuse is a global pandemic that few people know how to talk about, let alone treat and prevent."

"Since sexual violence is an isolating event, girded by shame and stigma, understanding that you're not alone and connecting with other survivors is alchemy, transmuting isolation into intimacy and connection."

This is something that Amita knows and understands well as a survivor herself.

"My childhood included a lot of violence from my father, including rape and other forms of domestic violence," says Amita. "Mandated reporting was imposed on me when I was 13 and it was largely unhelpful since the prosecutors threatened to incarcerate my mother for 'being complicit' in the violence I experienced, even though she was also abused by my father for years."

What helped them during this time was having the support of others.

"I'm grateful to have had a loving younger sister and a few really close friends, some of whom were also surviving child sexual abuse, though we didn't know how to talk about it at the time," Amita says.

"I'm also a queer, non-binary femme person living with complex post-traumatic stress disorder, and those identities have shaped a lot of my life experiences," they continue. "I'm really lucky to have an incredible partner and network of friends and family who love me."

"These realizations put me on the path of my life's work to end this violence quite early in life," they said.

Amita wants Mirror Memoirs to help build awareness of just how pervasive rape culture is. "One in four girls and one in six boys will be raped or sexually assaulted by the age of 18," Amita explains, "and the rates are even higher for vulnerable populations, such as gender non-conforming, disabled, deaf, unhoused, and institutionalized children." By sharing their stories, they're hoping to create change.

"Listening to stories is also a powerful way to build empathy, due to the mirror neurons in people's brains. This is, in part, why the project is called Mirror Memoirs."

So far, Mirror Memoirs has created an audio archive of BIPOC LGBTQI+ child sexual abuse survivors sharing their stories of survival and resilience that includes stories from 60 survivors across 50 states. This year, they plan to record another 15 stories, specifically of transgender and nonbinary people who survived child sexual abuse in a sport-related setting, with their partner organization, Athlete Ally.

"This endeavor is in response to the more than 100 bills that have been proposed across at least 36 states in 2021 seeking to limit the rights of transgender and non-binary children to play sports and to receive gender-affirming medical care with the support of their parents and doctors," Amita says.

In 2017, Mirror Memoirs held its first gathering, which was attended by 31 people. Today, the organization is a fiscally sponsored, national nonprofit with two staff members, a board of 10 people, a leadership council of seven people, and 500 members nationally.

When the pandemic hit in 2020, they created a mutual aid fund for the LGBTQIA+ community of color and were able to raise a quarter-million dollars. They received 2,509 applications for assistance, and in the end, they decided to split the money evenly between each applicant.

While they're still using storytelling as the building block of their work, they're also engaging in policy and advocacy work, leadership development, and hosting monthly member meetings online.

For their work, Amita is one of Tory's Burch's Empowered Women. Their donation will go to Mirror Memoirs to help fund production costs for their new theater project, "Transmutation: A Ceremony," featuring four Black transgender, intersex, and non-binary women and femmes who live in California.

"I'm grateful to every single child sexual survivor who has ever disclosed their truth to me," Amita says. "I know another world is possible, and I know survivors will build it, together with all the people who love us."

To learn more about Tory Burch and Upworthy's Empowered Women program visit https://www.toryburch.com/empoweredwomen/. Nominate an inspiring woman in your community today!

Photo by R.D. Smith on Unsplash

Gem is living her best life.

If you've ever dreamed of spontaneously walking out the door and treating yourself a day of pampering at a spa without even telling anyone, you'll love this doggo who is living your best life.

According to CTV News, a 5-year-old shepherd-cross named Gem escaped from her fenced backyard in Winnipeg early Saturday morning and ended up at the door of Happy Tails Pet Resort & Spa, five blocks away. An employee at the spa saw Gem at the gate around 6:30 a.m. and was surprised when they noticed her owners were nowhere to be seen.

"They were looking in the parking lot and saying, 'Where's your parents?'" said Shawn Bennett, one of the co-owners of the business.

The employee opened the door and Gem hopped right on in, ready and raring to go for her day of fun and relaxation.

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When a pet is admitted to a shelter it can be a traumatizing experience. Many are afraid of their new surroundings and are far from comfortable showing off their unique personalities. The problem is that's when many of them have their photos taken to appear in online searches.

Chewy, the pet retailer who has dedicated themselves to supporting shelters and rescues throughout the country, recognized the important work of a couple in Tampa, FL who have been taking professional photos of shelter pets to help get them adopted.

"If it's a photo of a scared animal, most people, subconsciously or even consciously, are going to skip over it," pet photographer Adam Goldberg says. "They can't visualize that dog in their home."

Adam realized the importance of quality shelter photos while working as a social media specialist for the Humane Society of Broward County in Fort Lauderdale, Florida.

"The photos were taken top-down so you couldn't see the size of the pet, and the flash would create these red eyes," he recalls. "Sometimes [volunteers] would shoot the photos through the chain-link fences."

That's why Adam and his wife, Mary, have spent much of their free time over the past five years photographing over 1,200 shelter animals to show off their unique personalities to potential adoptive families. The Goldbergs' wonderful work was recently profiled by Chewy in the video above entitled, "A Day in the Life of a Shelter Pet Photographer."