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How We Can Use NASA’s Space-Age Technology to Stop Wildfires

In the third of our series of out of the box ideas, we look at fire blankets. Anyone who has worked in a commercial kitchen, or indeed has any knowledge of fire suppression in an enclosed space, will be aware of fire blankets. They’re generally made of fire-retardant materials such as fibreglass and work by smothering the flames and starving the fire of oxygen. They’re affordable, easy to use and effective for small-scale fires but thought to be impractical for suppressing larger wildfires. However, as one of the “wild ideas” put forward for consideration, we think it is worthy of further evaluation.

In 2013 researchers at NASA reached out to the Forest Service after hearing about the terrible loss of life when 19 firefighters became overwhelmed by a wildfire on Yarnell Hill in Arizona. The researchers, Anthony Calomino and Mary Beth Wusk, hypothesized that by using technology designed by NASA to help protect the Space Shuttle from the heat of re-entry they could create a blanket that can protect firefighters in situations where they are under threat of being engulfed by a wildfire. It would not be the first time NASA technology had been used in the wider world. The idea and the technology has been explored by a number of commercial organisations including the Californian firm, Sun FireDefense (SFD), which has develop an enhanced fire shelter for use by fire fighters. The question is, could a fire blanket be used in the field to suppress wildfires.

There are two major problems with attempting to use any form of fire blanket on a wildfire. The first is scale. To have any chance at all, they would have to be manufactured to a very large scale. Potentially, up to a mile long and a hundred yards wide. That is not straight forward. However, advances have been made recently that give us some grounds for optimism. Materials are being manufactured to a greater scale than previously thought possible. Take the request from NASA for a solar scale to be launched into space and deployed in space. It needed to be larger than ever done before. Eventually Du Pont manufactured one that was over an acre big. That material was quite different from a fire blanket, but it demonstrates the skills and ingenuity available if we call upon industry to solve a problem.

The second seemingly insurmountable problem is deployment. The first time I heard about the possibility of using fire blankets was when they had been proposed to engineers in the RMRS in Missoula. The idea was rejected because of the difficulty of somehow getting the fire blanket over the fire. Helicopters, drones, catapults were all suggested and dismissed. The up currents from a wildfire made all these impractical. However, thinking outside the box, what if we didn’t try to deploy them over the wildfire, but instead deployed them ahead of the advancing wildfire. That changes the situation. It removes the difficulty and the risks of dealing with a huge blanket while the fire is raging below it. This doesn’t solve the problem, but it makes it far more likely to be solveable. 

So, could fire blankets provide a solution. If not a complete solution could they be used to better manage the direction and spread of the wildfire. In an indirect assault, could they provide fire fighters on the ground with a more effective weapon. It isn’t there yet, but with further development and modification, could it be? Who knows, maybe the solution lies in the kitchen.

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