Green Tech: Firefighters hot to try FireIce gel
FireIce, a potassium-based polymer that, when mixed with water, becomes a gel that stops fires cold, could soon make its California debut.
California’s 2,096 wildfires burned more than 1.2 million acres, destroyed 2,000 homes and caused at least 15 deaths. Shasta and Trinity counties saw more than $55 million in damage. Gel Tech Solutions, the Florida-based company that makes FireIce, wants to dramatically reduce such statistics.
Created eight years ago by Peter Cordani, chief technology officer of Gel Tech Solutions, FireIce is nontoxic, noncorrosive and biodegradable. Designed to fight wildfires, this product can be sprayed on vegetation and homes. Sprayed ahead of a fire, it creates an effective fire break. Sprayed on "hot spots," it instantly snuffs out flames, preventing them from recurring, company officials said.
Tom Strenta of Gel Tech said once the fire is over, simply hose things down and FireIce dissolves. Its formula then enhances tree and brush growth.
FireIce was tested by one of the largest independent laboratories in the United States (Southwest Research Institute of San Antonio). FireIce also tested effective against fires from rubber, tires, gasoline and diesel fuel, company officials said.
"This product can mean the difference between first- and third-degree burns or between life and death," Strenta said.
When Cordani recently saw Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger talking about the wildfires'' devastation on TV, he traveled to California and attempted to see the governor in Sacramento. Unsuccessful, he was eventually referred to San Diego’s Intermountain Fire Department.
Intermountain Battalion Chief Jeremy Christofferson said, "I’ve been dreaming of a product like this."
At a recent green tech exposition in Los Angeles, Cordani gave a demonstration of FireIce. He aimed a fully lit acetylene torch at an uncoated piece of wood, which burst into flame. He then dipped his hand in a bucket of FireIce gel and turned the torch on his hand. As viewers gasped, nothing happened. His hand was cold; no nasty burns.
But before California’s firefighters can benefit from the product, it must still undergo more testing and be certified through the Department of Forestry. Once it passes, a number of agencies must sign off on it. These oversight groups include OSH-TAC, the state Fire Marshal’s Office, the National Wildlife Coordinating Group and the National Fire Protection Administration, whose guidelines firefighters adhere to.
This entire process takes up to 18 months. But there’s a silver lining. In cases of extreme emergency, Cal Fire can "use any product that’s useful for fire suppression activities," said Dave Ault, deputy chief of operations for Cal Fire’s North Region in Redding.
This product may get that chance. A fire recently broke out in the San Diego area, and Cal Fire’s Assistant Chief Kevin O’Leary authorized dropping FireIce if the fire worsened. Using gel as a fire suppressant isn’t new, Ault said. It’s one of four standard methods already used. It’s used in firefighting aircraft, but it’s been too difficult to get the proportions right to use in fire trucks, he said. FireIce requires no special equipment or mixing. One 50-pound bag will fill a typical 500-gallon fire truck. Just add water. The price is appealing. Other methods cost from $4 to $20 a gallon. FireIce's 60 cents a gallon cost could cut California’s firefighting expenses. "If (FireIce) simplifies things, if it has the same characteristics of other products and costs less," Ault said, it could be more readily accepted. "I see a future for these products as a suppression tool," Ault said. Debra Atlas is a freelance environmental writer and professional speaker. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.