Jim Roth’s brother, Rodger, was a smoke jumper for the U.S. Forest Service based in Idaho. On the morning of July 6, 1994, Rodger parachuted into the South Canyon Fire in Storm King Mountain, Colo. The fire blew up later in the afternoon, killing him and 13 other wildland firefighters who had deployed their fire shelters in hopes of surviving a burnover.
Roth was an aerospace engineer and realized his background in thermal dynamics could provide the technical knowhow to develop a better fire shelter to protect wildland firefighters in the future.
“My father always told my brother and me, we have to leave this world a better place than how we found it,” he said. “I realized that here was an opportunity where I could make a contribution, develop a better fire shelter and try to prevent this from happening again.”
Now president of Storm King Mountain Technologies, Roth and his engineering team are beta-testing new fire shelters based on their field research and real-time data on bushfire intensity, speed and conditions. Based on fire research under both laboratory flame-throwers and actual wildland-fire conditions, the company’s fire shelters are designed to protect against radiant and convective heat environments — capable of handling a direct flame. Roth said it is the first fire-barrier material product designed for use for firefighter protection in direct flame bushfire conditions.
The problem with the USDA Forest Service’s current version — developed in 2002 and used at the Yarnell Hill Fire that took the lives of 19 wildland firefighters — is that is uses adhesives to bind together the fire-resistant material, Roth said. While it is good for radiant heat, like the type found around a campfire, the adhesives cannot withstand burnover because they melt at 500°F.
“What will typically happen in a burnover, when they see direct flames on the outside of the shelter, it will then burn away the adhesive and then the shelter deteriorates and comes apart,” he said, adding that Storm King Mountain’s version contains no adhesives.
In addition, the company is testing newer materials available with higher temperature ratings that “can be used to give firefighters a chance of survival in direct flames of surviving a burn over,” Roth said.
The Yarnell Hill Fire and loss of nearly the entire Granite Mountain Hotshot crew has made Roth "even more determined than ever to get this out there to keep firefighters safe,” he said.