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Ready for fire season

Flame-retardant gel appeals to homeowners who can apply it themselves.

August 31, 2003|Kathy Sena | Special to The Times

Big Bear City residents Sue Oleson and Bob Jones live in one of the most gorgeous spots in Southern California -- and one of the most vulnerable to fire.

"It's so dry here right now," Oleson said. "The trees are brown."

Even though precipitation has been close to normal this year, according to Big Bear City Fire Chief Dana Van Leuven, four years of well-below-normal precipitation has stressed the pines and left them susceptible to attack from insect pests. In the Big Bear area, "the bark beetle has caused between 10% and 39% tree mortality," Van Leuven said, citing figures from an April 2003 Forest Service report, the most recent available.

Given the conditions, it's not surprising that a recent "Good Morning America" report on fire-retardant gel caught Oleson's eye. The gel, which a homeowner can apply using a simple attachment to a garden hose, costs about $400 to $500, depending on the brand, to provide a 2,000-square-foot home with short-term protection.

"That's less than the cost of most people's insurance deductible," noted Mike Lerke, owner of RainDance Enterprises in Tijeras, N.M., and a distributor for Nochar E112 Fire Blocking Gel, one of several brands of fire-retardant gel being marketed to homeowners. The products are unrelated to the fire retardants that have raised concerns because of toxicity.

Oleson, 62, spent about $600 to purchase enough to cover her 1,325-square-foot chalet-style cabin plus a deck. "That's not a large house. But the deck is 800 square feet, and I would need to cover the top and bottom of it," she said, adding that the deck is built around a 120-foot pine tree.

When she heard that John Bill Bartlett, the inventor of Barricade Fire Blocking Gel and the owner of Florida-based Barricade International, was coming to Big Bear to demonstrate the product to firefighters and residents, Oleson showed up at the demonstrations, video camera in hand. She then organized a presentation at her home for her Neighborhood Watch group.

Bartlett, a lieutenant with the Palm Beach County (Fla.) Fire Department, said the idea for the gel came to him during a less-than-glamorous firefighting assignment. In 1994, he and his partner were called to a home where several bags of trash had caught fire on the front porch. Standard post-fire "mop-up" procedure called for opening the bags and checking the contents to make sure no embers remained.

"We saw something that looked like white, unburned tissue paper, and we wondered why it hadn't burned," he said. It was the remains of a used diaper.

The super-absorbent polymers, which are used in disposable diapers, hold many times their weight in water. Bartlett began thinking that perhaps polymers could be added to a liquid and sprayed on structures to protect them from fire. But he faced several challenges.

First, the polymers were available only in powder form. How could the powdered-polymer formula be converted into a liquid that could be stored in a small container when polymers immediately expand upon contact with water?

After much trial and error, and with the help of chemists, Bartlett discovered that mineral oil would hold the polymers in a liquid suspension, without expanding, so the resulting solution could be sold in jugs. Then the user could apply the mixture with a garden hose, adding the water that would cause the expansion of the polymers and create the fire-retardant gel.

Finally, in 1999, after Bartlett had tested some 47 versions of the product, Barricade Fire Blocking Gel was ready to go. Several other manufacturers came out with similar products about the same time.

The gels made quite an impression on firefighters. Today, every unit in the city of Los Angeles Fire Department is equipped with Barricade Gel, said Battalion Chief Bob Franco.

Barricade Gel has been responsible for saving "a couple hundred homes" in western Montana over the past few years, according to Joe King, operations chief for Montana Wildfire Inc., a private firefighting company based in Bozeman. In Montana, the gel has been carried on trucks and applied by public and private firefighting units, King said. "It's not a cure-all. But it has saved homes and it has helped keep firefighters safe."

Los Angeles County Fire Department trucks carry a fire-retardant foam that similarly enables firefighters to protect a structure in the path of a fire, according to Capt. Anthony Williams. "You can have a fire break that's 10 to 20 bulldozer blades wide, and you can still have enough radiant heat from the fire to endanger homes on the other side of the fire break," Williams said. The foam can provide hours of protection.

Although fire-retardant foams are the choice of some fire departments, the gel formulas are being marketed to fire departments and homeowners.

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