Aircraft have dropped red long-term retardants in response to out-of-control wildfires for almost 60 years. Long-term retardants were primarily purchased by countries and individual states to help protect citizens and critical assets in the face of impending wildfires. In the last few years, however, breakthroughs in environmentally safe polymers have turned the preventative application of clear, ground-applied retardants into a rapidly growing business.
One of the major industries now embracing the preventative application of long-term retardants is power/utility companies. Although utilities are not the cause of the majority of wildfires, those ignited by utilities have turned into some of the most devastating wildfires, especially in the United States. The 2021 wildfire season could be even worse than 2020 due to continued effects of climate change and widespread drought – in fact, precipitation in some regions is 30% to 70% lower than normal coming into this year’s fire season.
Utilities are using many new tools such as drones, high-definition cameras, and sensors, which are all being introduced to detect wildfires more rapidly once they start. This could allow for quicker response efforts and help to minimize damages. Some utility companies are even turning to Public Safety Power Shutoffs (PSPS) to prevent wildfire ignitions. PSPS events cost billions of dollars annually in unseen losses, and potentially even contribute to the loss of life for those that rely on electric power. These options work to varying degrees, but in order to make real strides in protecting people and property from wildfires, solutions were needed that help prevent wildfire ignitions in the first place. Solutions of this kind will reduce reliance on sensory and detection devices and limit the need to turn off power to millions of utility customers. When considering options that are available to help prevent wildfire ignitions, utility companies are now looking to ground-applied long-term fire retardants (LTR). Perimeter Solutions is proud to already be working with some of the largest utilities on their prevention efforts.
In addition, government agencies and large global businesses, which have traditionally not been engaged with wildfire prevention, are now embracing preventative application of long-term retardants to help prevent ignitions where they are starting, so that they don’t have to ‘fight’ them after they are out of control. Corporations are working to reduce their liability, protect their assets, customers and communities. An example of this in the United States is a group of California utility companies that announced they are investing approximately $13 billion to help mitigate the risk of wildfires from their assets.
Some of the breakthroughs that made this possible came out of Stanford University and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT). New retardants being commercialized globally now include an adjuvant that helps the long-term fire retardant better adhere to vegetation and increases its durability, enabling it to provide retardant effectiveness until 2.5 to 5cm of rainfall. This means that in many areas, a single annual application of long-term retardants in a preventative manner can last for the entire fire season.
Dr Eric Appel, who works at Stanford in the Department of Materials Science & Engineering and serves as a Faculty Fellow for the Woods Institute for the Environment worked with a team of scientists to develop the retardant. ‘Through our extensive research conducted at Stanford University and MIT, we were able to create a non-coloured, durable and affordable long-term retardant that can be applied proactively to help prevent ignitions throughout the peak fire season with a single application,’ said Dr Appel.
Working with Greg Butler at the South Australian No-Till Farmers Association (SANTFA), the preventative use of clear, ground-applied long-term retardants has been tested since 2019 with excellent results showing the ability to help wheat-straw remain non-flammable – even after multiple centimetres of rain fell and 12 weeks of exposure to various weather conditions. Commercial deployments will start to occur broadly across the Asia Pacific region as we enter the upcoming fire season.
In addition to utilities, state and federal transportation agencies are starting to preventatively apply long-term retardants along roadsides to help prevent ignitions from vehicles, which is one of the greatest man-caused ignition sources. A majority of these ignitions, which start following catalytic converters exploding, brakes overheating, chains dragging, and even overheating cars pulling over in vegetation, could be prevented with a 3–5m application of long-term retardant at the beginning of the season. With the product being clear/white, most drivers would not even know that the product has been applied.
At the Wildfire Prevention Summit hosted by the Western Fire Chiefs Association in May of 2021, the Chief of the United States Forest Service stated that for every $35 being spent in wildfire response cost and damage, the agency could be spending $1 in preventative application. The critical resolve of not only governments but of businesses and agencies that are responsible for wildfire ignitions will need to occur.
Where will long-term retardant be used next?
Successful use of long-term retardants by utility companies and government agencies will lead to adoption by other industries.
By applying long-term retardants preventatively around their assets, global mining and pipeline companies will not only prevent ignitions that their assets cause but also help to protect against potential incoming fires from outside sources. This should lead to pre-application around ‘hot work’ that is being performed, welding and equipment repair that is occurring in areas of high-risk fire threat during fire season.
Insurance companies will start to broadly apply long-term retardants around homes and assets in high fire-threat areas, after encouraging homeowners to remove flammable vegetation near the home, create defensible space, and even harden the infrastructure itself. Reinsurance companies will start to mandate the application of long-term retardants to reduce trillions of dollars’ worth of insured risk.
Global railway carriers will start to apply long-term retardants preventatively in their right-of-way where hot spikes and metal-on-metal friction starts to cause ignitions. In addition, ground-based retardants will be applied in a protection manner, instead of water, after ignition occurs. This could include preventative applications on wooden bridges, around high-value communications towers that railways and many emergency responders rely on, and in combination with rail-grinding operations.
Military bases that experience fires from active munitions will start to apply a boundary around base areas where an ignition could spread into communities. Animal rescues will work to preventatively protect reserves where animals cannot be moved in the event of an oncoming fire.
These are just a few examples of where long-term retardant are already being used preventatively, as well as where products will help multiple businesses in the future. Within 2–4 years, its use is expected to become widespread and routine applications will occur at the start of fire season in countries around the globe.
Any long-term retardant that is applied preventatively should meet or exceed environmental standards for having extremely low toxicity to both fish and mammals, while providing the same level of retardant effectiveness that the industry has come to expect. The United States Forest Service maintains a Qualified Products List (QPL) that contains all products that have passed extremely difficult qualifications in order to receive approval for application on wildlands. Countries including Australia and others in the Asia Pacific region point to this ‘QPL’ list for their own country’s standard for which products are also acceptable to be applied. This is due to a Final Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) and National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) analysis that has been completed. Although red PHOS CHEK products have long been the leading long-term retardant products on the QPL, certain long-term fire retardants on the list are now categorized into a specific ‘pre-treatment’ category. This will include Perimeter Solutions’ clear/white PHOS-CHEK FORTIFY long-term retardant that will be used for global wildfire prevention efforts.
With these new technology advancements to long-term retardants, the paradigm for wildfire management has changed from reactive suppression to proactive prevention, which will help provide better protection for first responders and communities. Over the next few years, there will be more pressure put on every industry to prevent ignitions from their sources and protect people and property from oncoming fires. This will include ingress and egress routes to safely get fire personnel into an area, and to evacuate community members out of an area under threat. Protecting people is more important than protecting property, and every region of the world can take an active role by incorporating the preventative application of long-term retardants into their wildfire prevention and protection strategies.
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