A longer-lasting type of water
Casual observers watching the kind of air show that often is part of a wildland firefighting effort might not realize that water and retardant drops serve generally different purposes.
Water is typically used right on the fire front, to suppress or extinguish flames, cool things off and help enable firefighters to directly fight the fire. But it evaporates fairly quickly. Retardant is more typically used in an indirect fashion, away from the flame front, in an effort to prevent a fire’s spread, and is longer-lasting than water.
Now a new study by the Center of Excellence is evaluating products designed to boost the effectiveness of water drops by making the water last longer after it’s deployed. What are called water enhancers, or gels, are created by adding powder or liquids to water so a polymer film forms on the ground when the water is dropped.
“We want to test how effective these products are in … aerial wildland firefighting,” said Dave Toelle, the center’s aerial firefighting expert.
Such products have been used in some other states, and in places such as Australia. The center hopes to build on research that has been done elsewhere already, focusing on three products approved for use by the U.S. Forest Service. For the study, one of the products will be used by airplanes operating out of the Rifle Garfield County Airport, another product will be based in Craig, and a third will be based in Fort Collins.
While the planes are generally being sent to fires with water enhancers, they’ll deliver retardant instead if that’s what a fire’s incident commander wants. The center has been trying to promote use of the products on fires so it can evaluate them, but hasn’t had too much opportunity to do so yet.
“We’re trying to say, ‘Hey, get this stuff out there and use it,’ ” Toelle said.
Toelle said the study may carry over into multiple seasons if the products aren’t used enough for it to be completed this year.
He said water enhancers weigh less than retardants, a consideration in terms of an aircraft’s payload capacity, and also cost less. The study will evaluate how the various products do in terms of things such as their preparation and handling, and how much longer the treated water lingers before evaporating.
Toelle is excited to see how water enhancers perform in a state where they’ve been little used.
“Once we get boots on the ground and they can follow this stuff up … then we think this tool here has a lot of applicability,” he said.
— Dennis Webb