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Heating up with some context

I have a kingdom where large patches of forest and dense vegetation lands are lying, ranging from mountainous (al)pine forests to deciduous trees from oceanic or mildly continental climates, with a tendancy to grow a little more of fast growing trees and bushes than usual (reason below). Some villages and towns are scattered in them, making their trade from the resources of the surrounding woods.

However, because of the caracteristics of some of the flora inhabitants, wildfires are more frequent than usual; These trees burning up are a threat to the people, so the kingdom has devised a whole military branch to protect people living in the woodlands and their outskirts.

As such, denizens have built watchtowers, pumps and wells, breakable barrages and "switchable river" systems in an effort to, if not extinguish, mitigate those disasters. Firefighter squads are not left out naked, as they have access to quality equipment to help them : Horse-carried water carriages, axes and shovels to dig fire barriers, ladders and ropes to navigate around... But also lots of buckets to get help from the population, kits to heal injuries and even a prototype of a fire hose (they worked really, really hard on this one!).

A burning interrogation

Thinking about the "offensive" part of the loadout of firefighters is relatively easy to find and mix into your own sauce on your hot sausage, since firefighting tools history and techniques can be found here and there. The problem is... Even though it's nice to douse fires, it's not very fun to burn from said fires. And alas, I have a harder time finding good sources of inspiration to protect oneself against fire.

This is why I let out my blazing curiosity out to you with this question : How and with what would you design a team of firefighter protective equipment as effectively as possible, within the time frame of medieval technology?

In order to give you an idea of what I'm looking for, below are some additional points to think about, right out of the oven!

  • During emergencies, firefighters behave like how you'd think a firefighter should behave, and can be resumed in 3 words : Save or perish. The goal is to find the best way to keep them from perishing :).
  • While they will help cats to climb down trees here and then, their primary task is still fighting fires; They are less often called for other cases.
  • Also, even though I talked a lot about potential wildfires before, they do take care of house fires too. But... Since wildfires are often a lot harder to take on and they are the historical reason firefighters exist, their equipment are focused against them.
  • The budget on this branch of military forces is a lil' bit higher than your usual soldier, however there are quite a number of firefighters, and the uniform is standard-issue. What I mean is that you should avoid burning up the kingdom budget by sewing tailor-made suits with gold and silver.
  • Overall technology level is medieval, up to 14th century, especially when looking at materials and energy sources (that is, if you'd use any). I am more lenient on technics such as mechanical and physics knowledge or finely detailed crafting, but it should be plausible in regards to that time period.
  • Even though there is magic in my world, it is forbidden, as it unravels against the standard issue rule (not everyone can use magic).
  • On a similar topic, available materials are roughly what you'd expect you have in a medieval Europe.

So now you know a little more, how will you ignite your mind to save these brave men and women fending of the flames to save you?

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    $\begingroup$ you can't fight a forest fire with medieval technology all you can do is preventive measures like fire breaks. the only way to fight a forest fire with medieval tech is to draft the entire populace into the effort. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 4 at 20:32
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    $\begingroup$ It is basically only preventative or evacuation, preventative would be mostly fire breaks. on the upside towns tended to clear the trees around them fairly quickly for building material, farmland, and firewood. forest fires bothering a town were rare. you really don't want them fighting them too much. oddly by not fighting forest fires you cause forest fires to become less of a problem, the US learned that the hard way. frequent fires prevent the build up of fuel, so fires are common but rarely large or catastrophic. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 4 at 22:51
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    $\begingroup$ On the offensive side, your main tools will be oil, tinder and flintsteel, for two reasons: 1. the only way to prevent a big wild fire is to light it yourself while there is still only enough dry plant matter for a moderate one, and when the weather is not too dry, and 2. to stop a wild fire, you wait until the wind starts blowing towards it (the fire sucks in fresh air from all around) and set a counter-fire, which will be blown towards the main fire and burn the fuel before that, so the fire will get stuck in the middle of burnt-out patch and die out. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Feb 6 at 10:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec That's risky and a little counter-intuitive, but smart. I'm more fond of counter-fires, as it's easier to explain to the locals, and the source of the fires (flaming seeds) already burst the abcsess while it's not too big, in some sort of way. $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Feb 6 at 12:39
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    $\begingroup$ @JanHudec what they don't have is the understanding of fire science to know why or where to set counterfires. worse no weather prediction they could start a fire only to have the wind shift an hour later. remember these are people who made wooden chimneys. without weather prediction controlled fires have a high risk of becoming uncontrolled fires. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 6 at 15:31
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Wool

Historically specialized* fire fighter clothing was made of wool, with leather only being used anywhere wool would not work (like hats). Even today wool is uses in a lot of fire fighting equipment and is consider one of the best available materials.

It may sound strange but wool is actually very fire retardant. Ignition temp 600°C, leather on the other hand burns at only 200°C. Wool is also self extinguishing which is a big bonus. It is an extremely good insulator even while soaking wet, whereas leather is a very poor insulator. Leather is spark resistant which is very different than fire resistant.

fire fighting gear needs to be two things a good insulator and fire resistant, if it can be waterproof even better. wool is the only natural material that fits for the first two and is fairly water repellant, if you can add a rubber top layer even better but that is likely beyond their technology. Medieval people could make wool gambesons so they can make wool protective clothing just fine.

A good helmet is important as well, these tended to be thick stiffened leather sometimes with a cork liner, protecting the head was considered more important than insulation in the case of helmets.

enter image description here

*the earliest fire fighters just wore their normal clothing because they did not enter burning buildings they just knocked them down from the outside to prevent the fire from spreading.

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  • $\begingroup$ Good thing is that wool is not that hard to get in my kingdom, as far as I have devised ^^. There's just one thing to keep an eye out : During summer, you'd probably need to be careful of heatstrokes with such isolants. Better wear the uniform only when needed then :p. $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Feb 6 at 22:02
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    $\begingroup$ @Tortliena that is still a problem for fire fighters today, it is one reason bunker gear is designed ot be put on and taken off quickly. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 7 at 6:01
  • $\begingroup$ Yep, not accounting it's not very comfortable to wear them all day, and you don't want to let the fire to expand while you have an hard time zipping up your uniform. $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Feb 7 at 15:32
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Look to History:

If you want to know what to equip your fire fighters with, look to how fire fighters were equipped a century ago. The tech used then is not really different than the tech available in a medieval setting. If you are willing to allow access to rubber (a natural product used by the Aztecs and Mayans for waterproof clothing) your fire fighters can look a lot like those of the 1900's era.

Start with a good helmet with a wide brim. A big barrier to fire fighters was their fear of entering crumbling buildings and having debris fall on them. A stiffened leather helmet was used then but it could be part iron helmet for greater protection if desired. Thick wool was used for clothes (coverd with a long coat), and as soon as it was available, a rubberized rain coat and rubberized boots were used to both protect from the heat and prevent the soaking and virtual immobility associated with it. A thick pair of rubberized pants with suspenders would round out a set of gear. Staying DRY is critical, since the weight and exhaustion associated with all that wet clothing will render your fire fighters ineffective.

Early fire fighters grew thick beards and tied the wetted hair over their faces to help protect from the smoke and fumes. The actual making of air filters wasn't all that sophisticated, but no one had bothered to design them - they aren't terribly complex. An early self-contained air supply wasn't any more than a pair of rubberized canvas bags with a hose and cap on them to allow the fire fighter to take clean air with them. Again, if you allow rubber, this is completely doable with medieval tech. Fires are often the scene of a lot of noise. Many fire fighters carried bullhorns before radio equipment was available to allow them to amplify their voices and be heard. I include this under protective equipment because communication is critical to safety.

air apparatusfighters with bullhornshelmets2

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    $\begingroup$ rubber is not absolutely essential fire fighters uniforms until after pressurized fire hydrants become common. before that there just was not enough water being thrown around to make full soaking common. also protective pants were wool, later with a rubberized outer layer. insulation is the most important part. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 4 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ @John Not essential, but they are talking about a lot of water regardless, and rubber also insulates from heat and fire besides keeping them from being soaked. If you were asking these guys to go in in front of the bucket brigades or enter building, they will get wet. I'll admit I'm going for the best the tech can allow, not what is merely practical. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Feb 4 at 22:10
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    $\begingroup$ The term Medieval refers specifically to Europe between the fall of the Western Roman Empire and the Beginning of the Renaissance. Rubberized cloth specifically needs vulcanized rubber which was not invented until the 1800s; so, it is distinctly not a medieval technology. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 5 at 15:09
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki I mentioned that rubber was somewhat questionable, although it's not outside of possible technologically. Actually, the Mayans used rubber to make waterproof clothing before vulcanizing - it just isn't quite as good. thecollector.com/mayan-inventions/…. $\endgroup$ – DWKraus Feb 5 at 21:55
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Use Asbestos

Asbestos cloth is not as modern of an invention as some people might think. In fact, it is a very old technology dating all the way back to ~2400 BC. Asbestos is a natural mineral fiber that is mined and woven into an extremely heat resistant cloth. It is much better than natural fibers at resisting burning and preventing the transmission of heat through it. The toxic nature of Asbestos was first discovered by the Romans some time around the 1st Century CE, but we humans have managed to forget this little detail every so often and it finds its way back into popular use.

Many early firefighting jackets were made using this cloth; so, it only makes sense that your firefighters would use it too. These early jackets normally had an outer face of rubberized cloth for added strength and dryness on the outside with an Asbestos inner lining, and was then worn over a felt or wool shirt for added comfort and insulation. However, rubberized cloth did not exist in the medieval period; so, your firefighters would have probably use a lightly waxed leather outer layer if they were to want to waterproof it.

Your firefighters would get cancer more often than your general population, but this would not stop your people form using it. In the medieval period, people believed sickness came from Miasma (bad air) so when they start to notice firefighters getting sick a lot, they would just assume your firefighters are getting sick from too much smoke inhalation, not from their fire gear.

To protect themselves from getting sick from the bad air, firefighters would likely adapt their outfits to be a sort of mix between Bunker Gear and Plague Doctor gear. † So, they may adopt the practice of wearing a beak mask filled with herbs or perfumes meant to sweeten the air. They would also have a different shaped hat since the flat topped hats worn by plague doctors were specifically a mark of the medical profession. They would instead probably wear something more like a conical helmet lined on the inside with asbestos to protect them from falling debris.

I am not suggesting that a plague doctor mask is good thing for fighting fires, but that it is a logical consequence based on how medieval medical science worked.

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    $\begingroup$ bad air did not kill fire fighters nearly as often as lack of air that is why masks did not become common until they could be supplied with pumped air. also asbestos fire fighting gear was not made of asbestos it had a layer of asbestos in it or had it woven in to another fabric. . $\endgroup$ – John Feb 4 at 22:56
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    $\begingroup$ @John, My comment about bad air was not that people believed the smoke would kill you, but about the logical conclusions that would be made about asbestos toxicity based on how Medieval medical science worked. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 5 at 14:43
  • $\begingroup$ I'd be more worried about the firefighters getting lung cancer from smoke than getting lung cancer from asbestos turnout gear. $\endgroup$ – Mark Feb 5 at 22:35
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Wet leather for the body and wet towels to protect the face are probably the things to go for.

The water would take away some of the heat by evaporating, and the leather is probably the most lightweight, fire resistant and heat insulating material you can find in medieval age.

And if you are carrying water you can always drop a bucket on yourself to keep it wet.

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    $\begingroup$ Would steam burns be an issue? $\endgroup$ – Sol Feb 4 at 19:36
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    $\begingroup$ @Sol, leather is not a good heat conductor. Steam would form on the outer layer, far from the skin. $\endgroup$ – L.Dutch - Reinstate Monica Feb 4 at 19:43
  • $\begingroup$ The most straightforward solution is maybe the best ^^". I thought there would be more elaborate technics. How much water would you need to protect effectively? I ask this since I've taken once a storm full blow and became litterally a full, wet sponge, and oh was it hard to run around with my wet clothes! $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Feb 4 at 19:59
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    $\begingroup$ dry leather is not a very good insulator, wet leather is even worse. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 4 at 22:20
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    $\begingroup$ Leather aprons are often used by blacksmiths because it does not burn easily on contact, It's looseness and an inner layer of clothing help keep air between it and your skin to reduce heat transmission, but if you get it wet, I agree with john, it will not be so good. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 4 at 22:33
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Starlite.

A combination of corn starch, baking soda, and glue or sugar combine to create a ablative heat-shielding material known as Starlite, originally invented in our world in the 1980s, which works by producing a carbon foam that carries the heat away from the protected object, acts as a heat insulator, and also acts as a good radiator of heat through black body radiation. This is a member of a class of similar materials called "intumescents"; many modern commercial materials include phosphorus to accelerate its ability to produce carbon foam.

While it wasn't discovered until modern times, the ingredients needed should be available in a medieval society, and it's entirely possible for them to stumble across similar recipes. Here's a video by its re-inventor discussing its history, how to make it, and how it works.

However, it should be noted that this recipe for Starlite is vulnerable to being consumed by mold or rot (the video above suggests adding borax to the recipe to counter-act that, which might be available in your fictional medieval society since it's a rock that can be mined from dried lake beds), and is rigid enough that if it was used as armor for the firefighters themselves, it would most likely have to take the form of a coating on top of rigid plates.

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    $\begingroup$ The OP asked for Medieval technology. Even though those materials existed back then, the science behind intumescents did not exist; so, there would be no reason for someone to experiment with flammable materials in this context. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 5 at 15:14
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki Given some of the ingredients that can be used to make it, it's entirely possible to stumble across the effectiveness of certain intumescent materials by complete accident (possibly in a bakery). It was invented by a hairdresser pseudoscientist IRL, for instance. $\endgroup$ – nick012000 Feb 5 at 15:49
  • $\begingroup$ I kinda agree with Nosajimiki that it's a little stretch technology-wise ^^', but it's still mind-broadening and I might make another (al)"chemistry-focused" country discover it as a top notch, ultra-expensive/rare/secret thing. I wonder though... I think sugar wasn't exactly cheap at that time. And, given the sugar proportion (apparently ~1/5 of all components), it makes a pretty hefty quantity for a whole suit. In order to make it cheaper, can I by chance replace sugar with honey (I have plenty of it), pretty please :)? $\endgroup$ – Tortliena Feb 5 at 16:45
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    $\begingroup$ The sugar thing is a good point. I seem to recall Modern History (a YouTube Channel) did a bunch of pieces on medieval cuisine and both sugar and highly processed starches were among the things that only the nobility could afford. $\endgroup$ – Nosajimiki Feb 5 at 18:38
  • $\begingroup$ Starlite main problem is it is fragile not the best for wearable protection. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 6 at 5:27
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Leather. The thicker the better. Leather is very hard to burn, and is fairly heat-resistant. Minimize metal, because it will get hot and burn you if you touch it. If the leather starts smoldering, back up and pour some water on it.

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    $\begingroup$ leather is not a good insulator, if leather is smoldering from radiant heat you have already burned the person underneath. $\endgroup$ – John Feb 4 at 22:25
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Asbestos

Asbestos has been mined for thousand of years. Around 2500 B.C.E. The Egyptians used asbestos cloth to bury their pharaohs1. Asbestos has been used in fireproof cloth since at least 600 C.E. In Persia and 800 C.E in Europe where it was used as a party trick.

Asbestos has been used in firefights’s clothing in the past, although that appears to have been a more recent idea. It is possible that someone who was researching fire protection equipment may have developed it earlier if the need had been great enough, and they saw the party trick, they might have developed a fire proximity suit.

Asbestos has also been use as gas mask filters. It would be possible to make a gas mask using medieval resources and technologies to protect against smoke and possibly carbon monoxide by using asbestos and activated carbon, I believe.

Sources 1 Asbestos The Hazardous Fiber By Melvin A. Benarde pg27

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Asbestos#History

https://www.levylaw.com/asbestos-firefighter-clothing-equipment/

https://en.m.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fire_proximity_suit

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gas_mask#Safety_of_old_gas_masks

https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Activated_carbon#Production

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Coarse cloth, sacking worked very well traditionally, soaked in clay slip, it will dry out and possibly even burn eventually but it has a higher thermal mass than wet cloth or even leather, so more energy is adsorbed before it gets hot and much lower thermal conductivity than water alone so steam burns to the wearer are less of a problem as well. Several layers will work best as the top layer will crisp and insulate the inner layers against direct exposure to flames. Suits made up of several layers of clay soaked sacking were used to do emergency repairs inside the hot boilers of ironclads when battle damage caused their seams to flex and patching from the inside was necessary due to lack of external access.

The above is pretty much a one use and it's cooked solution, a more permanent solution could be created using fibre-tempered ceramic plates for large areas that don't have to bend laced together with clay soaked panels. Fibre-tempering has been around and in common usage since the stone age, the fibres burn out when the pottery is fired and the voids provide added insulation. Suits with this constructions will be relatively bulky, constrictive, and possibly even heavier but also relatively durable over wet cloth.

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