A dirty diaper that refused to burn in a Dumpster fire led a Florida firefighter in the 1990s to develop a goo that can protect structures from flames.
Now, a Newport businessman is selling that goo to the federal government for testing on wildfires across the country this season, a year that officials expect to be worse than normal for fires in the West.
Dave Fredley, president of Northwest Barricade, said he signed an open-ended contract on July 5 with the Boise-based National Interagency Fire Center to provide the gel on an on-call basis to several federal agencies.
Today, the federal government will begin field testing the gel by dropping it out of planes, probably onto forest fires in Utah, Nevada and California, said Merrill Saleen, a chemicals program manager at the U.S. Bureau of Land Management.
The gel, made with a super-absorbent polymer, soaks up water and stores it in several layers of tiny bubbles. When heated by fire, the gel is boiled away one layer at a time, protecting the surface below from extreme heat for long periods.
After a fire, it washes away with water and is biodegradable.
The gel was originally developed after a firefighter in Florida, John Bartlett, noticed that disposable diapers didn’t burn during fires. He discovered that the absorbent powder used in those diapers could be converted to a gel that, when mixed with water, could be sprayed on houses and foliage, Fredley said.
In his living room last week, Fredley mixed water with a quarter-size blob of the Barricade gel — which looks like milky-colored, translucent shampoo — spread it on his hand and blasted his palm and fingers with a propane torch. His skin was undamaged.
Saleen said the gel won’t replace the retardants currently dropped from planes because it doesn’t halt fires for as long as traditional retardants. It’s about the same price as other fire retardants, he said.
But it’s valuable to firefighters because it’s mixed with water using a 1-to-99 ratio, meaning little gel is needed to fight a large fire. Other fire retardants are mixed in a 1-to-4 or 1-to-5 ratio, Saleen said. That makes Barricade more portable, allowing firefighters to transport it closer to a fire quickly, Saleen said.
Saleen estimated that the federal government could use 50,000 gallons of the unmixed Barricade this fire season, which would make up one-fifth of the materials dropped in an average year.That’s only an estimate, Saleen added, because officials fighting blazes in the field will decide how much to order.
“If it comes to imminent threat to life and property, my guess is they’ll go with what they know,” he said.
Federal officials expect a worse-than-normal potential for fires in many parts of the West and in the Northern Plains, largely because of warm and dry conditions over the past few months, according to the interagency fire center. Much of Washington is expected to have an average year, but the Okanogan region on the eastern slopes of the Cascades will have an increased risk because of unusually dry plants.
Fredley, who spent 16 years with the Forest Service and seven years with the BLM, came out of several years of retirement to start his company last winter. He buys the Barricade product from Bartlett’s company, Barricade International, based in Hobe Sound, Fla., and distributes it in eight western states. His company is also the national supplier of the gel to the mining and timber industries, he said.
“We’ve got a big job in a big market,” he said.
His federal contacts helped him land the interagency fire center contract, which could produce sales of $2.75 million this fire season.
The Newport-area resident said he became interested in the Barricade gel because his home sits against the woods in a remote valley.
The gel works better than the foams most fire departments use because the water bubbles insulate better than air bubbles, he says .
“I just want to see people have this and protecting their property and house,” Fredley said.
Pend Oreille County Fire District 8 Chief Christopher Lee Smith, who watched a demonstration last week with representatives of Fire District 7 and the Newport Fire Department, said his department intends to purchase the gel, although the cost prohibits him from buying as much as he would like with his district’s $10,000-a-year budget. Four gallons and an applicator for firefighters’ use costs $400.
Smith said he’ll wait to see whether the Washington Department of Natural Resources buys the gel so he can take advantage of a program in which the state pays half the cost.
He wants to use it to protect homes near wilderness areas and those that are so far off the road it would be dangerous to fight a fire firsthand, he said.
“I do have some homeowners that are interested in doing it for themselves, which saves me because they can foam it and leave, and I don’t have to worry about their house. I can worry about the other ones,” he said.
A home kit, enough to cover 2,500 to 3,000 square feet, costs $320, not counting shipping, Fredley said.