Event highlights research to improve wildland firefighting gear

(05/17/24) BATON ROUGE, La. — Flame-retardant clothing, boots and other protective gear are essential tools of the trade for wildland firefighters. LSU AgCenter faculty are among a multistate group of researchers working to improve protective equipment for firefighters.

Their research was highlighted at a May 16 meeting on the LSU campus. Faculty from the University of Kentucky, Florida State University and Kent State University gave presentations on their work, which encompasses topics such as the best ways to clean firefighting apparel and how to make better protective garments for female firefighters.

The issue has renewed interest in Louisiana, which faced a destructive wildfire season last year.

“We had a really dry summer and a lot of fires last year, and that led to more attention towards wildland firefighting and their protection,” said Sibei Xia, an assistant professor in the Department of Textiles, Apparel Design and Merchandising. She was awarded funding through the LSU Provost’s Fund for Innovation in Research to support the event.

The needs of wildland firefighters vary by location.

“Different people in the group are looking at different aspects of wildland firefighter protection,” Xia said. “I want to see how Louisiana is different from other states and the unique needs of Louisiana firefighters.”

Methods for fighting forest fires also differ by region, said Wade Dubea, Louisiana’s state forester.

“This is Southern firefighting. It is different than Western firefighting. It is different from the Piedmont area of the United States,” Dubea said. “We’re flat. We fight fire with bulldozers, with less hand crews.”

Another key difference? Fighting a blaze in a forest is not the same as a house fire. As Dubea and his colleagues saw last year, municipal and volunteer fire departments are often more than willing to pitch in and assist state wildland crews — but their training, experience and equipment are starkly different.

“They’ve got bunker gear,” he said, describing the heavy coats and pants many people associate with firefighters. “But if they put on that bunker gear that they use to go into a house, they’re going to smother in about five minutes when they get out on a forest fire.”

Wildland firefighters, by contrast, are typically seen in less-bulky outfits consisting of yellow shirts and green pants. Like many others, the fire crews Dubea oversees in the Office of Forestry wear clothing made of Nomex, a brand of fire-resistant material.

They carry an array of other gear, including fire shelters — an item that demonstrates the crucial role that special fabrics can play in emergency scenarios.

Dubea told the group about a Kentucky firefighter who recently deployed his fire shelter — a safety device made of aluminum foil, woven silica cloth and fiberglass — while working a fire. The wind shifted, cutting off the firefighter’s escape route and trapping him among flames. He suffered serious burns but survived.

“Several years ago, without that option, that individual would have lost his life. What goes on here and the improvements that can be made are tremendous,” Dubea said, referring to the research being undertaken at the universities represented at the event.

As for how protective equipment can be made better, he hopes lighter, cooler fabrics will become available.

“We sent several firefighters to the hospital because they got overheated,” he said, recalling the grueling conditions his crews endured last summer.

Xia believes the collaborative research effort is important.

“It has practical value in terms of improving the protection of wildland firefighters who are risking their lives to protect the state,” she said.

Man and woman standing in front of seated audience.

Sibei Xia, left, an assistant professor in the LSU AgCenter Department of Textiles, Apparel Design and Merchandising, introduces Wade Dubea, Louisiana state forester, at the National Collaborative Research Event on Wildland Firefighters’ Personal Protective Clothing Improvement. The event was held May 16 in the Human Ecology Building on the LSU campus. Photo by Olivia McClure/LSU AgCenter

5/17/2024 2:44:52 PM
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