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Technology

Wildfire Bunkers Are a Thing. But Can They Save Lives?

When there’s no way out, should we go down?

A man hiding from a wildfire.
Heatmap Illustration/Getty Images

On August 20, 1910, a “battering ram of forced air” swept across the plains of western Idaho and collided with several of the hundreds of small wildfires that had been left to simmer in the Bitterroot Mountains by the five-year-old U.S. Forest Service.

By the time the wind-fanned flames reached the trees above the mining town of Wallace, Idaho, later that day, the sky was so dark from smoke that it would go on to prevent ships 500 miles away from navigating by the stars. A forest ranger named Ed Pulaski was working on the ridge above Wallace with his crew cutting fire lines when the Big Blowup bore down on them and he realized they wouldn’t be able to outrun the flames.

And so, in what is now wildland firefighting legend, Pulaski drove his men underground.

Sheltering from a forest fire in an abandoned mineshaft was far from ideal: Pulaski held the panicked men at gunpoint to keep them from dashing back out into the fire, and he and the others eventually fell unconscious from smoke inhalation. But even now, more than a century later, there are few good options available for people who become trapped during wildfires, a problem that has caused some emergency managers, rural citizens, and entrepreneurs to consider similarly desperate — and subterranean — options.

“We have standards for tornado shelters,” Alexander Maranghides, a fire protection engineer at the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST) and the author of a major ongoing assessment of the deadly 2018 Camp fire in Paradise, California, told me. “We don’t have anything right now for fire shelters.”

That’s partially because, in the United States, evacuation has long been the preferred emergency response to wildfires that pose a threat to human life. But there are times when that method fails. Evacuation notification systems can be glitchyor the alerts sent too late. Roads get cut off and people get trapped trying to get out of their neighborhoods. Residents, for whatever reason, are unable to respond quickly to an evacuation notice, or they unwisely decide to “wait and see” if the fire gets bad, and by then it’s too late. “If you can get out, you always want to get out,” Maranghides said. “But if you cannot get out, you don’t want to burn in your car. You want to have another option and among them — I’m not going to call it a ‘Plan B,’ I’m going to call it the ‘Plan A-2.’ Because we need to plan for those zero notification events.”

One promising, albeit harrowing, option has been TRAs, or “temporary refuge shelters” — typically unplanned, open areas along evacuation routes like parking lots where trapped citizens can gather and be defended by firefighters. Hardening places like schools or hospitals so they can serve as refuges of last resort is also an option, though it’s difficult and complex and, if done improperly, can actually add fuel for the fire.

Beyond that, you start getting into more outside-the-box ideas.

Tom Cova is one such thinker. He has been studying wildfire evacuations for three decades, and when I spoke to him recently to discuss the problem of traffic jams during fire evacuations, he told me that in Australia, “they have fire bunkers — private bunkers that are kind of like Cold War bunkers in the backyard, designed to shelter [people] for a few minutes if the fire’s passing.”

Unbeknownst to me at the time, Cova has even gone on record to say he’d consider one for himself if he lived on a dead-end road in California’s chaparral country. “My family and I would not get in our car and try to navigate the smoke and flames with bumper-to-bumper taillights,” he told the Los Angeles Times back in 2008. “We would just calmly open up, just like they do in Tornado Alley — open the trap door and head downstairs. Wait 20 minutes, maybe less, and come back and extinguish the embers around the home.”

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  • Bunker-curious Americans can get easily discouraged, though. For one thing, Australia’s bushfires burn through areas fast; if you’re sheltering underground from an American forest fire, you could be in your bunker for considerably longer. For another, there are very few guidelines available for such bunkers and as of yet, no U.S. regulations; even Australia, where there are standards, generally recommends against using fire bunkers except at the highest-risk sites. Then there is the fact that there is almost no existing American fire bunker market if you wanted to buy one, anyway. “You would think more people would have wildfire shelters, but they don’t,” Ron Hubbard, the CEO of Atlas Survival Shelters, told me. “Even when there was a big fire not that many years ago and all those people died in Paradise … it has never kicked in.”

    Hubbard is technically in the nuclear fallout shelter business, though he’s found a niche market selling a paired-down version of his marquee survival cellar, the GarNado, to people in wildfire-prone areas. “How many do I sell a year? It’s not a lot,” he admitted. “I thought it would have been a lot more. You’d think I’d have sold hundreds of them, but I doubt — I’d be lucky if I sell 10 in a year.” Another retailer I spoke to, Natural Disaster Survival Products, offers “inground fire safety shelters” but told me that despite some active interest, “no one has bought one yet. They are expensive and not affordable for many.”

    Installing a Wildfire Bunkerwww.youtube.com

    Hubbard stands by his bunker’s design, which uses a two-door system similar to what is recommended by Diamond, California’s Oak Hill Fire Safe Council, one of the few U.S. fire councils that has issued fire bunker guidance. The idea is that the double doors (and the underground chamber, insulated by piled soil) will help to minimize exposure to the radiant heat from wildfires, which can reach up to 2,000 degrees. It’s typically this superheated air, not the flames themselves, that kills you during a wildfire; one breath can singe your lungs so badly that you suffocate. “Imagine moving closer and closer to a whistling kettle, through its steam, until finally your lips wrap themselves around the spout and you suck in with deep and frequent breaths,” Matthew Desmond describes vividly and gruesomely in his book On the Fireline.

    This is also why proper installation and maintenance are essential when it comes to the effectiveness of a bunker: The area around the shelter needs to be kept totally clear, like a helicopter landing pad, Hubbard stressed. “You’d be stupid to put a fire shelter underneath a giant oak tree that’s gonna burn for six hours,” he pointed out.

    If there is “a weakness, an Achilles heel of the shelter,” though, “it’s the amount of air that’s inside it,” Hubbard said. Since wildfire shelters have to be airtight to protect against smoke and toxic gases, it means you only have a limited time before you begin to risk suffocation inside. You can extend the clock, theoretically, by using oxygen tanks, although this is part of the reason Australia tends to recommend against fire bunkers in all but the most extreme cases: “Getting to a tiny bunker and relying on cans of air in very unpleasant conditions and being unable to see out and monitor things would be a very unpleasant few hours,” Alan March, an urban planning professor at the University of Melbourne, once told the Los Angeles Times.

    Private fire bunkers, with their limited capacities, can start to feel like they epitomize the every-man-for-himself mentality that has gotten some wildfire-prone communities into this mess in the first place. Something I’ve heard over and over again from fire experts is that planning for wildfire can’t happen only at the individual level. NIST’s Maranghides explained, for example, that “if you move your shelter away from your house, but it’s next to the neighbor’s house, and your neighbor’s house catches on fire, preventing you from using your shelter, you’re going to have a problem.” A bigger-picture view is almost always necessary, whether it’s clearing roadside vegetation along exit routes or creating pre-planned and identifiable safety zones within a neighborhood.

    To that end, bunkers are far from a community-level solution — it’s impractical to have a cavernous, airtight, underground chamber by the local school filled with 1,000 oxygen tanks — and they’re not a realistic option for most homeowners in rural communities, either. Beyond requiring a large eyesore of cleared space for installation on one’s property, they’re expensive; Hubbard’s fire shelter starts at $30,000, and that’s before the oxygen tanks and masks (and the training and maintenance involved in using such equipment) are added.

    The biggest concern of all when it comes to wildfire bunkers, though, might be the false sense of security they give their owners. Evacuation notice compliance is already a problem for fire managers; by some estimates, as many as three-quarters of people in wildfire communities hesitate or outright ignore evacuation notices when they are issued, even when not immediately evacuating is one of the most dangerous things you can do. But by having a shelter in one’s backyard, people may start to feel overconfident about their safety and linger longer, or decide outright to “shelter in place,” putting themselves and first responders in unnecessary danger.

    As far as Hubbard is aware, no one has actually ridden out a wildfire in one of his shelters yet (people tend to install them, and then he never hears from them again). But there have been reported cases of homemade fire bunkers failing, including a retired firefighter who perished in a cement bunker on his property with his wife in Colorado’s East Troublesome fire in 2020.

    Even Pulaski’s celebrated escape down the mineshaft resulted in tragedy. Though the forest ranger is remembered as a hero for his quick thinking and the 40 men he saved from the Big Blowup, the stories tend to gloss over the five men who either suffocated or drowned in the shallow water in the mine while unconscious from the smoke.

    Some things just don’t change over 100 years: You will always have the greatest chance of surviving a fire by not being in one at all.

    Read more about wildfires:

    How to Escape a Wildfire

    Jeva Lange profile image

    Jeva Lange

    Jeva is a founding staff writer at Heatmap. Her writing has also appeared in The Week, where she formerly served as executive editor and culture critic, as well as in The New York Daily News, Vice, and Gothamist, among others. Jeva lives in New York City.

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