Story by Laurel Morales
One year ago, 19 Granite Mountain Hotshots deployed fire shelters in an Arizona box canyon. The fierce wind blew the Yarnell Hill Fire over the crew and killed them. Today, the father of one of those men is trying to help the U.S. Forest Service improve those shelters to withstand direct flames.
David Turbyfill doesn't want his son Travis to have died in vain.
He recently sent a video he made to anyone who'd take notice. One of the first images in it is a photo taken during the investigation of the fire - 19 twisted piles of crumbled aluminum and ash; the barely recognizable remains of the fire shelter. Later in the video, Turbyfill's recent tests are seen.
A large metal pipe shot fire for 30 seconds on to the current fire shelter material layered over a firefighter's yellow fire retardant shit. Turbyfill, wearing protecting glasses and gloves, pulled the metal frame off what had turned into a black shirt, and holds it up to the camera.
"The shirt material has obviously scorched," he said. "It's hardened. It's brittle."
Then he ran the same test, but a minute longer, over a fireproof fabric Turbyfill found on the Internet.
"So, let's take a look and see what our results are on this one..." he said. "My inner foil...no burn through still intact and the firefighter's shirt is completely intact."
Turbyfill's metal fabricating shop is in Prescott. There, he talked statistics. In the last two decades, burnover and entrapment accounted for 25 percent of wildland firefighter deaths.
"What I'm saying is, if you create a better fire shelter or survivable fire shelter product that you can eliminate 20 to 25 percent of all fatalities, eliminate, not reduce, eliminate," he said.
The Forest Service's Tony Petrilli heads the fire shelter improvement effort.
"High temperature insulation materials are usually heavy, bulky and fragile," he said.
Petrilli said the current shelter reflects radiant heat. And he said he agrees adding insulation would make a better shield against direct flames.
"Firefighter has to carry this fire shelter along with all their other equipment all day every day all summer long," he said.
So lightweight materials are a must and that’s something Turbyfill’s fabric is. But it’s also a bit bulky.
He said with high demand a manufacturer could improve it. And the proper equipment is essential to the firefighters’ safety.
"They shouldn’t have to pay with their lives regardless of the situations whether they make a mistake, or management makes a mistake or weather makes a mistake it’s not an act of God. We’re given intelligence for a reason. We should build a shelter that is fully survivable not a prayer," he said.
Turbyfill said he’s reminded of his 27-year-old son Travis every time he looks in the mirror. He said he doesn’t want to relive the past, but he believes it’s important to bring attention to what he calls a fixable issue.
The process to revamp the fire shelter is a complex one. The Forest Service plans to select a new fire shelter after its been tested in the field during the 2016 fire season.