FirefightersProtecting Lives on the Wildland Fire Line

Published 27 July 2021

Unlike first responders who fight structural fires, wildland firefighters are unable to use the current standard respirator systems, which are heavy, limited to 45 minutes of air and are too bulky. Since the current standard equipment for respiratory protection is a bandanna, DHS S&T and partners designed the Wildfire Respirator around a lightweight mask covering just the mouth and nose, relying on filtration rather than on heavy tanks of compressed air.

Record-high temperatures this summer mean that the 2021 fire season, which is well underway in several states, is likely to be devastating. As of July 22, 79 large fires and complexes have burned 1,448,053 acres, and more than 21,700 wildland firefighters and support personnel are assigned to wildfires across the United States. Families, businesses and homes are at risk and it’s also taking a huge physical and mental toll on the firefighters battling the blazes.

The Department of Homeland Security (DHS) Science & Technology Directorate (S&T) notes that the federal government employs nearly 10,000 wildland firefighters, and that 70 percent of all the acres burned in wildfires are located on federal lands. “All of our nation’s wildland firefighters are tasked with preserving and protecting not only the vast and precious natural resources of our parks and federal lands, which belong to all of us, but the homes and property of the people who live in close proximity to those lands, as well,” S&T says.

They also protect critical infrastructure, like power lines and pipelines, that traverse wilderness areas. When this infrastructure is damaged by fire it can and does create massive and costly interruptions to the lives and business of people, many of whom may not live or work anywhere near the wilderness.

S&T has been working hard to protect these men and women as they work to protect communities under threat. One of S&T’s main mission focus areas is supporting the development of technologies that first responders need to stay safe—this is why S&T, along with CAL FIRE, the National Fire Protection Association, U.S. Forest Service, the International Association of Firefighters, the International Association of Fire Chiefs, and local Colorado fire departments, contributed to the design and testing of a new Wildland Firefighter Respirator, which is currently being developed by TDA Research, Inc. This has the potential to be a big leap forward in the fight against wildfires.

In order to fight these fires, wildland firefighters trek into undeveloped areas, carrying everything they need to get the job done on their backs, and sometimes without being able to count on a lot of logistical support. As they approach a fire, the smoke can be very thick and some of the byproducts of a wilderness fire are surprisingly toxic. Besides the particulates from smoke, firefighters are subjected to toxic vapors and gases, including high levels of carbon monoxide. It isn’t just a problem