Environmentally Safe Gel May Be the Key to Taming Wildfires

Fire trucks pass the Delta Fire burning in the Shasta-Trinity National Forest, Calif., on Sept. 5, 2018. Parked trucks lined more than two miles of Interstate 5 as both directions remained closed to traffic. (AP Photo/Noah Berger)

(CN) –Wildfires are burning across the globe with more frequency and intensity, creating ecological and economic damage and claiming the lives of an increasing number of victims.

California experienced its two deadliest and most destructive fire seasons in each of the last two years. In November 2018, the Camp Fire razed the town of Paradise, killing 85 people and wreaking $16.5 billion worth of damage.

In 2017, the Tubbs Fire killed 22 and cost about $1.3 billion.

In the aftermath, much attention has been devoted to the culpability of electric utilities and prevention techniques like forest thinning, but a new study published Monday indicates it might be material science that provides the most effective solution.

Researchers at Stanford University published a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences proclaiming the creation of an environmentally benign gel-like substance that makes flame retardant applied in the wilderness stay in place for months instead of days.

“This has the potential to make wildland firefighting much more proactive, rather than reactive,” said Eric Appel, the study’s senior author and an assistant professor of materials science and engineering at Stanford. “What we do now is monitor wildfire-prone areas and wait with bated breath for fires to start, then rush to put them out.”

Appel’s idea is that by applying the gel to trees in areas particularly susceptible to human-caused fires – like roadsides, near campgrounds and along river sides – flame retardant will last long enough to justify application.

Currently, flame retardant is used to fight fires once ignited, with hundreds of thousands of gallons of material dumped on forests from airplanes to snuff out a rapidly spreading blaze. Such suppressants have been applied preventatively in the past but don’t last long enough to be used as a significant tool on the suppressant side of the equation.

However, the Stanford-developed technology – a cellulose-based gel-like fluid – stays on target vegetation through wind, rain and other environmental exposure.

“You can put 20,000 gallons of this on an area for prevention, or 1 million gallons of the traditional formulation after a fire starts,” said lead author Anthony Yu, a doctoral student in materials science and engineering at Stanford.

Field studies conducted alongside members of the California Department of Fire and Forestry (Cal Fire) show the newly developed retardant can still provide complete fire prevention after a half-inch of rain has fallen, after which traditional suppressants are entirely ineffective.

We don’t have a tool that’s comparable to this,” said Alan Peters, a Cal Fire division chief in San Luis Obispo who monitored some of the test burns. “It has the potential to definitely reduce the number of fires.”

The gel consists of nontoxic materials present in food, drug, agriculture and cosmetic products. The viscous consistency of the material allows the application to be performed by aircraft or spraying equipment typically used on farms.

While the material lasts for months, it will eventually wash away and require reapplication. Nevertheless, scientists and fire officials are optimistic the material will augment their fire prevention toolkit.

“We hope these new materials can open the door to identifying and treating high-risk areas to protect people’s lives and livelihoods,” Appel said.

The next step for researchers is to work with Cal Fire and the California Department of Transportation to apply the material to high-risk roadsides where dozens of fires spark annually.

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