Gels work, but need investment
In the second of our series on ‘out of the box’ thinking about wildfire solutions, we are reviewing fire retardant gels. Our overview is designed here just to stimulate thinking about the possibilities and to promote solutions that may need further investment in research and development before they can be seriously considered, but merit investigation.
Fire retardant gels have been with us for some time. They’re commonly used to coat surfaces that are at risk from fire. Could they play a role in fighting wildfires? It may be unlikely, but we would say it should be investigated. On a microscopic level, the gel is made up of materials that can soak up many times their own weight in water. It’s this water that helps extinguish fires. By encasing many layers of water droplets, the gel ensures its extinguishing effects are more powerful than water alone.
In June 2007, the US Department of Agriculture Forest Service published a paper titled Water Enhancers (Gels) for Wildland Firefighting outlining the considerations that must be met in order to use fire retardant gels outdoors; including, but not limited to: what chemicals cannot be used for environmental reasons, what manufacturers need to do in order to create a marketable gel, application methods, rules on storage, and other health and safety considerations.
In the same year that the Department was issuing its specifications, firefighters in Arizona went on record to say that the gels were effective but unlikely to be adopted any time soon. Paul Summerfelt, field management officer for the Flagstaff Fire Department, noting: “I think it’s a valuable product ... There’s no question about its effectiveness.” Summerfelt, however, was keen to stress that gels alone would not provide 100 percent protection, and that residents could do more to help themselves protect their property.
There’s no doubt that gels work, so why are they not being deployed more widely? There are two obvious drawbacks to the use of gels. The first, of course, is cost. Gels are more expensive that water to create, store and use. If you know when and where a fire will strike, the cost barrier is a non-issue. You would use gels every time. Wildfires though are somewhat unpredictable. Put simply, in the current economic climate you can’t protect everywhere at the same time using gels. Without scale, gels remain prohibitively expensive. However if there was a mandate to protect against wildfires using gel it would help to build scale and drive down costs. At lower costs there would be greater demand and it would create a virtuous cycle.
The second drawback is related to the gel’s consistency. To be utterly frank, gel is slimy. You may think that, in the event of a fire, sliminess is a cost worth paying for the protection of your property. However wildfires are unpredictable, and residents may be unlikely to coat their property in slime if the chance of a fire is negligible. If there’s a 10 percent chance of wildfire, you might be willing to bet against it, knowing that you’ll save yourself the cost of deployment and a big clean-up operation. Raise that chance to 30 or 50 percent and all of a sudden a little slime looks inviting; 70 or 80 and you’ll probably add a little extra just to be sure.
To combat this sliding scale of uncertainty, we can look towards two things. First, improve reporting and forecasting of fires. This is a continuous mission in fire protection so it almost goes without saying that this should be a goal. Second, and more specific to gels in particular, should be the speed and accuracy of deployment. If you can act quickly and deploy gels accurately onto properties in the immediate line of fire, then you’ll be willing to put up with the clean-up costs in the event that a wildfire sweeps past a protected property.
To a certain degree, this speed of deployment challenge is closely related to the cost barrier. Developing gels and application technology takes R&D investment. With investment, gel technology would improve enough to create a material and infrastructure that could be deployed rapidly and accurately whenever and wherever a wildfire occurs.
To echo Paul Summerfelt’s comment, gels alone are not the answer. But as part of an integrated approach to fire suppression, they have an important role to play - particularly when it comes to the protection of property. Forget hair gel, fire retardant gels are the ultimate way to stay cool.