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With flames swirling all around them, four firefighters trapped on a narrow Lake County ridge during the first hour of what would become the state’s third-most-catastrophic wildfire made the last-ditch decision most avoid at all costs: Seek refuge in emergency fire-resistant shelters.

“The ground was on fire,” Cal Fire firefighter Niko Matteoli said. “It didn’t need to be verbalized; we all knew immediately the intensity of the situation and we all just acted. There was no hesitation.”

But at that critical moment, with their faces already burned, firefighters Matteoli, 24, of Santa Rosa and Logan Pridmore found the outer packaging of the standard-issue shelters carried by wildland firefighters across the country had melted. Matteoli removed his gloves and tore away the molten plastic with his bare hands, and eventually he and Pridmore hid from the heat under one aluminum cocoon.

The failure of the shelter packaging to withstand the powerful radiant heat on Sept. 12 at the start of the Valley fire is a key element of a Cal Fire inquiry into the chain of events leading the four firefighters to suffer significant burns. The review is also examining whether tactics need to change in the fourth year of a historic drought in which massive wildfires have defied predictions and models for fire behavior.

The inquiry’s conclusions are eagerly awaited by wildland firefighters throughout the West. About 100,000 firefighters nationwide use shelters similar to the ones carried by the Boggs Mountain helitack crew, including about 6,000 with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

“This is not just a Cal Fire incident; it’s national,” said Battalion Chief Scott McLean, a spokesman for the agency’s Northern California region.

All four firefighters — Matteoli, Pridmore, Richard Reiff and Capt. Pat Ward — suffered significant burns to their heads, faces, arms and hands before they got into the shelters. Ward remains hospitalized, while Reiff has been released from the hospital but has yet to return to firefighting. Matteoli and Pridmore have returned to work at the Boggs Mountain helitack base.

The final analysis of the incident will be the culmination of site review and interviews with all personnel involved and will ultimately determine whether tactics or equipment need to change. A Missoula, Mont.-based team of Forest Service researchers that designs and evaluates fire protection gear dispatched a specialist to provide technical analysis on the gear for the investigation.

McLean said the process will take several months before any findings are released.

In parallel, U.S. Forest Service researchers already are collaborating with NASA scientists to develop a more durable, heat- resistant model than the current shelter.

Report stuns firefighters

Firefighters across Sonoma County said they had been anxious to see the official preliminary Cal Fire “green sheet,” a summary of the incident released Oct. 3 detailing how the firefighters became injured. Many said they were stunned to learn about the plastic melting and the equipment failure on the survival tents they will all carry in the next wildland blaze even as the effectiveness of that equipment is under review.

Firefighters, especially those who jump into the thick of it, deal with extreme situations and the equipment must be able to withstand those situations, they said.

Ernie Loveless, who ran Cal Fire’s Sonoma-Lake-Napa unit for 20 years until he retired five years ago, said he was concerned about the durability of the bags after they were introduced in 2004.

“It seemed strange to have safety stuff like that made out of plastic that will melt in extreme heat,” said Loveless, who is now Schell-Vista fire board president. “I asked: ‘Why do we put stuff in plastic?’ The answer I received from our academy at the time is it was the best material they knew of at the time.”

Immediately after the firefighters were burned on Sept. 12, officials ordered all state firefighters to pull out their shelters and inspect them, reinforcing the recommendation to reinspect the shelters every two weeks.

Fire shelters are rarely used, but firefighters in California deploy this equipment of last resort more than wildland crews in any other state, according to Forest Service data.

Between 2005 and the end of 2014, 82 fire shelters were used by firefighters nationwide — an average of eight times per year. That includes 37 shelter deployments by firefighters in California alone.

These new shelters have helped to save 24 lives and prevent 90 burn injuries since 2005, according to the Forest Service. Several companies make the shelters per Forest Service specifications, and they cost between $300 and $400 and come in two sizes.

“When you deploy a shelter, you are in serious trouble; that’s your last defense,” McLean said.

Wildland firefighters have been using various kinds of emergency fire shelters since 1977, and the U.S. Forest Service has since developed a standard model used by wildland fire crews throughout the country. The most recent model is widely called the “new generation” shelter and was rolled out by the Missoula-based Forest Service team in 2004.

Protection from radiant heat

The fire shelter traps breathable air inside as it is opened and uses aluminum foil to reflect radiant heat away from the person inside, according to federal specifications. The shelter can protect a person from radiant heat reaching 1,700 degrees and from brief direct-contact flames on its outer shell.

The shelter folds up like an accordion and fits into a clear polyvinyl chloride, or PVC, bag. That bag sits in a hard white case inside a sturdy woven pack made with Nomex fire-resistant fiber, a material also used in a firefighter’s yellow coat and pants.

The hard case and PVC bag are built to withstand temperatures up to 270 and 280 degrees respectively — just below the 300-degree point at which people die. Human skin starts blistering from second-degree burns at 131 degrees.

“As far as the PVC bag, the biggest job that a fire shelter needs to take on is everyday use and abuse,” said Tony Petrilli, who leads the Forest Service’s Missoula equipment research team. “It needs a lot of protection. It’s a harsh, dirty environment.”

The aluminum foil is vulnerable to abrasions that reduce its effectiveness, Petrilli said.

Petrilli is one of the patent- holders of the current model, and he said the team is exploring a wide range of alternative materials for the shelter package, including the PVC bag. They will only change the material if they find an alternative that is just as durable and light while more fire resistant.

Petrilli is a veteran smoke-jumper who survived the devastating 1994 South Canyon wildfire in Colorado that killed 14 firefighters. He endured 90 minutes inside a shelter, as glowing fire brands blew into the shelter and a wind-fueled fire made three different runs through the area.

He survived in part because he deployed his shelter in an area that had already burned, whereas others who had tried to escape the inferno were near vegetation, Petrilli said. Petrilli said he has a real-world understanding of what the equipment needs to do.

“I put the same stuff on my back, and I have a 26-year-old son who is a firefighter with the Forest Service, so I care about it very much,” Petrilli said.

He said that the Valley fire is the second incident in which the PVC bag melted.

Last year, a firefighter about to be entrapped by flames during the August Beaver wildfire in the Klamath National Forest had to cut through a melting PVC bag with a knife to get to the shelter, telling investigators the heated bag acted like “saran wrap.”

The Forest Service investigative report that followed, however, did not indicate any concerns about the material used to make the bag. The review panel, which included Petrilli, instead found that the bag appeared to have been darkened with dirt, and said it may have been worn out and should have been replaced.

‘Keeping a close eye’

Santa Rosa Training and Safety Division Chief Scott Westrope, who led a contingent of crews that fought the Valley fire in The Geysers, said that he has been “keeping a close eye” on the investigation and is eager to learn what’s discovered. The Santa Rosa Fire Department sent 17 firefighters to the Valley fire and is part of a network of local agencies that sends municipal firefighters to aid wildland firefights.

“We don’t want to hurt our people; we don’t want any fatalities,” Westrope said. “The expectation is we stay at the forefront of safety.”

Westrope said Santa Rosa firefighters will continue to carry the fire shelters during wildland situations until the Forest Service develops another model.

“We’re running with what we have right now because it’s the best tool we have,” Westrope said.

The injuries of the four Boggs helitack members have also prompted review of other tactics.

Westrope said that after the Boggs helitack members were injured, fire officials immediately began establishing larger “safety zones” with their crews. A common “safety zone” standard is that the distance between the firefighters and flames should be at least four times the highest flame; however, other factors can change that, including slope and wind.

4 killed; 76,067 acres burned

The Valley fire caused most of its destruction within its first 12 hours, when it ripped across 40,000 acres from Cobb Mountain to Middletown, fueled by a stiff wind and vegetation already ravaged by drought and bark beetles. The fire would continue on a two-week, 76,067-acre rampage that killed four people, destroyed 1,280 homes and caused more than $1.5 billion in economic losses.

Fire experts already were calling this summer’s fire behavior “unprecedented” when battling a series of earlier wildfires in Lake County, starting with the July 29 Rocky fire that burned 20,000 acres in just five hours in its first day, and ultimately torched 69,438 acres east of Clear Lake.

“Maybe we’ll take more of a defensive aspect as far as getting further ahead of the fire to make fuel breaks because of the speed of the fires this year,” McLean said. “Yes, we do change our tactics.”

McLean said that the fact that the plastic bag and hard case melted “shows you how extreme those conditions were and what we’ve been faced with this whole summer,” he said.

The Boggs Mountain helipad is located at about 3,000 feet, overlooking the conifer slopes of Cobb Mountain, and is home base for the four members of Cal Fire’s helitack 104 crew who were burned in the Valley fire.

The crew is one of 10 helitack units in California, specially trained crews of firefighters who deploy in helicopters to perform rescues and provide an initial attack on wildfires with only the tools on their backs.

Inside the open hangar on a recent cool, sunny day, 14 firefighters in blue Cal Fire T-shirts stood around a hosting device while an instructor explained how to install it into a Bell “Super Huey” helicopter.

Outside, Capt. Doyle Head, counterpart of injured Capt. Pat Ward, stood beside the helicopter. He’s worked with Ward for 10 years and said his colleague is highly experienced.

The fire burned with an unprecedented force and velocity, evidenced by the fact that it went against typical fire behavior by burning up into the timber and burning downhill from Cobb Mountain to Middletown.

“If anyone made a mistake that day, it was Mother Nature,” Head said.

Back on the job at Boggs

On Friday, Matteoli was back at work at Boggs, working his second shift since he was burned.

He’s mostly recovered from burns across his face, neck and arms, apart from some tender scarring on his elbows.

Matteoli said that on Sept. 12 the fire conditions appeared typical for a small wildfire when they first circled over the heavily wooded northern slope of Cobb Mountain, and that it continued to appear routine at first when they landed in an area off Bottle Rock Road.

“All fires start out small,” said Matteoli, a fourth-generation firefighter.

Their goal was to stop or slow the fire and protect homes.

“It wasn’t until the weather conditions changed that we felt like we weren’t in a good spot,” Matteoli said. “That was when the northeast side of that ridge went off and sent a fire front at us.”

They were already on the ridge at that point, and a sudden wind sent embers over them, igniting the northern slope. They were eventually rescued by a Cal Fire division chief who drove up a dirt road in a pickup to their location on the ridge and loaded them into the truck.

Matteoli’s grandfather Ron Matteoli, a retired career firefighter with Cal Fire, said he has no doubt the shelters saved his grandson’s life and that he’s confident the packaging materials will be vetted.

“They’ll get around to doing something about that container,” he said of the bag. “If it’s melting from radiant heat and you can’t get it out, that makes it totally useless. Niko had to rip the gloves off his hands in order to have the agility to rip it out. You shouldn’t have to do that to save your life.”

Staff Writer Randi Rossmann contributed to this report. You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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