By Alex Viktora
I used to work for the National Park Service. One of the sweetest things about working for the NPS was the official socks.
That’s right. Socks.
As a member of a wildland fire crew, I rarely had much need to be in official NPS uniform, so my annual uniform allowance was spent on socks. Brown wool socks. If you wear them with shorts, you look like…well…German?
I bought so many of these things, I still have a cache of unopened wool socks in my closet.
As most firefighters can attest, keeping your feet in good shape is super important. The NPS uniform socks—most of which are a milk chocolate-colored wool blend—were awesome socks on the fire line.
I’ve always known this.
But what I just now learned is this: These sock could save me from a serious burn. Come to think of it, they probably already have.
My Leg Had Fire Swirling Around It
In maybe my third season, I was on a prescribed fire somewhere in Utah. I’d been running a torch for days and days during our typical spring burning. I usually carry the torch in my right hand, and so my right pant-leg was, uh, pretty dirty. It wasn’t drenched or dripping, but it was certainly flammable—as I was about to find out.
On this particular shift, I was the guy way up the hill, with torches strung out down the hill below me.
We came to a place where we had to hold-up firing for a bit. For some reason, someone rang me up on the radio. I answered the call. As I did so, I moved maybe 10 feet downhill from the line of fire that I just laid in ponderosa litter. (If you’ve never burned in ponderosa needle litter, you’re missing out. Mmmm….Pondo litter!)
This line of fire backed slowly towards me. And as I yammered away on the radio, the fire inched closer and closer to my right leg.
Suddenly, I looked down. My leg had fire swirling around it.
I thought: “Wait—I’m on fire?” What a bizarre realization!
I put the fire out and I can’t say for sure how it all happened. One thing’s for sure: Putting that fire out took longer than I woulda guessed.
My Nomex turned that telltale yellow/brown. And I had some ‘splanin to do to the boss. My damaged ego was the worst of my injuries. My leg was barely as red as a sunburn.
Did my socks help prevent a serious burn injury? Turns out, they may have.
Tips on What To Do If Your Pant Leg Catches on Fire
The folks at the National Technology Development Program in Missoula have done some recently released great work to describe what happens when Nomex catches on fire. And it turns out, wool socks could be a key part of avoiding a burn injury.
Check out this new video for some cool tests:
Here’s a few specific tips on what to do if you find yourself with your pant leg on fire:
Testing Results and Accident Observations
- Swatting at burning fuel can increase the fire intensity.
- Stop, drop and roll does not readily extinguish fuel fires on clothing.
- Fuel-soaked clothing burns hotter and for a longer duration than clean clothing.
- Wool-blend socks provide significant protection to the wearer from thermal burn injuries caused by burning drip torch fuel.
- Pouring water from a readily available water bottle onto the clothing is an effective way to extinguish the fire.
- Dropping the pants to the ankles removes heat from next to the skin.
Next time you’re shopping for socks, consider some woolies that come up above your boots. Turns out, even the lovely brown ones might save your skin.
Do you have a story like this? Do you own any green Nomex pants that aren’t as green as they used to be?