By Laurel Kays, NC State Extension Forestry, Jesse Wimberley, Sandhills PBA, Jennifer Fawcett, NC State Extension Forestry
This is the first in a three-part series of posts highlighting PPE options for landowners who conduct prescribed burns. The second and third posts will provide information on PPE elements including boots, gloves, hats, and eye protection.
Personal Protective Equipment, often abbreviated PPE, is crucial to the safe and effective implementation of prescribed fire. PPE not only protects burners, but can help reduce distractions that arise from thorny vegetation or hot embers and allow personnel to focus on safely executing the burn. Unfortunately for landowners who conduct prescribed burns, it is sometimes prohibitively expensive to acquire some pieces of PPE that agencies and other larger organizations consider routine. However, there are many options for PPE that are financially accessible while still providing protection during burns.
This post will address some general considerations for selecting PPE, as well as options for pants and shirts. Following entries will address other elements including head coverings, face coverings, eye protection, and boots and shoes.
When choosing the PPE options that best work for you, you should first consider how you intend to use your PPE and what factors will be important to you. How long do you want your PPE to last before it must be replaced? What sort of vegetation will you be burning in and what kind of protection will that require? For example, if your burn units contain substantial amounts of blackberry or other thorny species, you may want pants that offer greater protection from those brambles. And finally, how much money are you willing to spend on your PPE?
In general, landowners conducting prescribed burns should try to wear PPE with the following characteristics:
- Long pants and sleeves
- Close-toed shoes
- A piece of clothing that is brightly colored enough to be seen by other burn crew members
- Some protection from fire and heat; at the very minimum clothing should not be made of synthetic material such as nylon that will melt under sufficient heat
Pant and Shirt PPE Options
Nomex: Most photographs and other media that show prescribed burning feature crew members wearing yellow shirts and green pants or yellow jumpsuits, generally made of a material called Nomex. Nomex is “an inherently flame-resistant, high-temperature resistant fiber that will not melt, drip, or support combustion in air.” Given those characteristics, it is popular for clothing worn by prescribed burners and is considered to be the safest and most flame-resistant. It is, however, expensive relative to other options, with a shirt and pants together generally costing hundreds of dollars.
“Work Wear” Brands: There are many brands that make flame resistant workwear both online and in stores. These may be general “workwear” or made for specific trades, such as welding. There is significant variability in factors such as price and quality.
Army Supply or Surplus: Army surplus retailers often carry flame-resistant clothing. This can be a particularly useful source for those seeking fire-resistant undergarments for cooler burn days.
Cotton/Wool “Normal” Clothing: For those who want or need to wear clothing they currently own, be sure that clothing is not synthetic. Synthetic fibers that are not specifically designed to be fire-resistant generally melt when heated, which can cause serious health and safety risks during a burn. 100% Cotton or wool are generally good options.
Cotton Safety Vests: For those wearing clothing in dull colors, particularly workwear brands or army surplus, it would be wise to purchase a fire-resistant safety vest to be visible to other burners. At minimum, wear at least one clothing or PPE item that is brightly colored and visible.
Where Can I Find PPE Clothing?
Many forestry supply stores carry Nomex and other PPE. Army Supply or Surplus retailers also often carry flame-resistant clothing. Workwear brands and other non-Nomex clothing can be found at many retailers, particularly farm or outdoor supply stores. Those living in areas with Prescribed Burn Associations (PBAs) or similar landowner associations may be able to borrow PPE from those associations or their members. Members may also be able to provide local, affordable recommendations for where to purchase PPE.
- eFIRE Equipment Videos – The eFIRE site guides prospective burners through the process of planning, conducting, and evaluating prescribed fire. The Equipment site includes videos about options for various parts of PPE.
- Oklahoma Cooperative Extension Service Prescribed Burn Equipment Fact Sheet– This fact sheet summarizes the different parts of prescribed burn equipment, including PPE.