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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A new Harriet Tubman statue sculpted by Emmy and Academy award-winner Wesley Wofford has been revealed, and its symbolism is moving to say the least.

Harriet Tubman was the best known "conductor" on the Underground Railroad, a network of safe houses that helped thousands of enslaved black Americans make their way to freedom in the north in the early-to-mid 1800s. Tubman herself escaped slavery in 1849, then kept returning to the Underground Railroad, risking her life to help lead others to freedom. She worked as a spy for the Union Army during the Civil War, and after the war dedicated her life to helping formerly enslaved people try to escape poverty.

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On an old episode of "The Oprah Winfrey Show" in July 1992, Oprah put her audience through a social experiment that puts racism in a new light. Despite being nearly two decades old, it's as relevant today as ever.

She split the audience members into two groups based on their eye color. Those with brown eyes were given preferential treatment by getting to cut the line and given refreshments while they waited to be seated. Those with blue eyes were made to put on a green collar and wait in a crowd for two hours.

Staff were instructed to be extra polite to brown-eyed people and to discriminate against blue-eyed people. Her guest for that day's show was diversity expert Jane Elliott, who helped set up the experiment and played along, explaining that brown-eyed people were smarter than blue-eyed people.

Watch the video to see how this experiment plays out.

Oprah's Social Experiment on Her Audience www.youtube.com

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The Hillary Clinton email scandal was a major right-wing talking point during the 2016 election that aimed to create an air of suspicion around the candidate.

The media played right into it turning Clinton — one of the most qualified candidates to ever run for the office — appear just as unworthy of the presidency as Trump, a vulgar, politically-inexperienced pathological liar.

The controversy surrounded Clinton's use of a private email account in which over 30,000 emails were sent during her time as Secretary of State from 2009 to 2013. An FBI interrogation found there were 110 confidential emails sent from her private account.

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Democracy

Young people today are facing what seems to be greater exposure to complex issues like mental health, bullying, and youth violence. As a result, teachers are required to be well-versed in far more than school curriculum to ensure students are prepared to face the world inside and outside of the classroom. Acting as more than teachers, but also mentors, counselors, and cheerleaders, they must be equipped with practical and relevant resources to help their students navigate some of the more complicated social issues – though access to such tools isn't always guaranteed.

Take Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, for example, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years, and as a teacher for seven. Entering the profession, she didn't anticipate how much influence a student's home life could affect her classroom, including "students who lived in foster homes" and "lacked parental support."

Dr. Jackie Sanderlin, who's worked in the education system for over 25 years.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience, says it can be difficult to create engaging course work that's applicable to the challenges students face. "I think that sometimes, teachers don't know where to begin. Teachers are always looking for ways to make learning in their classrooms more relevant."

So what resources do teachers turn to in an increasingly fractured world? "Joining a professional learning network that supports and challenges thinking is one of the most impactful things that a teacher can do to support their own learning," Anglemyer says.

Valerie Anglemyer, a middle school teacher with more than 13 years of experience.

A new program for teachers that offers this network along with other resources is the WE Teachers Program, an initiative developed by Walgreens in partnership with ME to WE and Mental Health America. WE Teachers provides tools and resources, at no cost to teachers, looking for guidance around the social issues related to poverty, youth violence, mental health, bullying, and diversity and inclusion. Through online modules and trainings as well as a digital community, these resources help them address the critical issues their students face.

Jessica Mauritzen, a high school Spanish teacher, credits a network of support for providing her with new opportunities to enrich the learning experience for her students. "This past year was a year of awakening for me and through support… I realized that I was able to teach in a way that built up our community, our school, and our students, and supported them to become young leaders," she says.

With the new WE Teachers program, teachers can learn to identify the tough issues affecting their students, secure the tools needed to address them in a supportive manner, and help students become more socially-conscious, compassionate, and engaged citizens.

It's a potentially life-saving experience for students, and in turn, "a great gift for teachers," says Dr. Sanderlin.

"I wish I had the WE Teachers program when I was a teacher because it provides the online training and resources teachers need to begin to grapple with these critical social issues that plague our students every day," she adds.

In addition to the WE Teachers curriculum, the program features a WE Teachers Award to honor educators who go above and beyond in their classrooms. At least 500 teachers will be recognized and each will receive a $500 Walgreens gift card, which is the average amount teachers spend out-of-pocket on supplies annually. Teachers can be nominated or apply themselves. To learn more about the awards and how to nominate an amazing teacher, or sign up for access to the teacher resources available through WE Teachers, visit walgreens.com/metowe.

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