JAMES HATTORI, host:
Wildfires destroyed more than 650 homes across the United States this year. But hundreds of others were saved by a gooey substance you can coat your house with. It's a fire-retardant gel and it's amazingly effective.
Charles Michael Ray of South Dakota Public Broadcasting introduces us to an entrepreneur who came up with an effective way to apply the gel.
CHARLES MICHAEL RAY: In one hand, Gordon Sabo is holding a blowtorch. He's covered the index finger on his other hand with about a quarter inch of what looks like a slimy, white sort of hand lotion.
Mr. GORDON SABO (Entrepreneur): And go ahead and…
(Soundbite of blowtorch)
Mr. SABO: You light the torch. And we're going to blow our torch right against our finger.
RAY: Sabo casually holds the blue flame of the torch on his gel-covered finger.
Mr. SABO: See, that torch is about 15 times more intense than any forest fire will ever become.
RAY: And is your finger hot at all right now?
Mr. SABO: No. At this point I can't feel anything.
RAY: The fire gel protecting Sabo's finger is a super absorbent polymer. It's 97 percent water and it's sticky. When sprayed on, it would adhere to a wall for days at a time. It just needs to be periodically rewetted to reactivate and can be later washed off. Sabo has developed an applicator that mixes the gel with water right at the nozzle. It uses a pump that can be mounted to a pickup or a fire truck.
Mr. SABO: We want to put on about a quarter of an inch thick and we want it to turn the building white. It's going to cling to that building. It's going to have a lot of moisture involve in it.
RAY: A gel like this has been around for about 10 years. It contains the same absorbent material found in baby diapers and it was invented by a firefighter who found unscorched diapers in the ashes of burned down homes. It costs about $500 to cover the average-size home in gel. And South Dakota's leading wild land firefighter, Joe Low, calls it a cost-effective tool for saving homes.
Mr. JOE LOW (Firefighter): It's better for firefighters because what it does it allows them to get in and gel the structures way ahead of the flaming front and then get out of the area when the flaming front comes through.
RAY: The flaming front is the wall of fire that can bear down at high speed on homeowners. Sabo says the radiant heat will scorch flesh a hundred yards away.
Mr. SABO: So people think you can stand there with your fire hose and your garden hose and squirt it at the fire, put the fire out, your water hose will evaporate before it ever gets close to the fire.
RAY: The Battle Creek fire in the Black Hills of South Dakota exhibited this kind of extreme fire behavior and Gordon Sabo's house was in the path of the flames.
Mr. SABO: It was headed right straight up my backdoor.
RAY: Just before the fire hits, Sabo sprayed down his own home. He then reluctantly had to retreat the intense heat and hope for the best.
Mr. SABO: I actually was standing in about 350 yards away, watching the fire consume everything around my home, and with the smoke and the flames and stuff, you couldn't tell whether my home was in there or not. And then, when it cleared, the house was still standing there and there was no damage to it, whatsoever. And I said, okay, that's great. And we went after 14 of my neighbors homes and we saved all of those.
RAY: Fire gel is seen as the last line of defense against an advancing wildfire. Sabo is often called in as the rest of the crews are ordered out. But he says more fire departments need to embrace this technology. While Les Hosapo(ph) with the U.S. Forest Service likes the gel, he doesn't want the public to get a full sense of security.
Mr. LES HOSAPO (U.S. Forest Service): There's always situation for a fire intense you can override a material being applied. So, you know, if people have given a notice for this time to leave the area, it's probably time to leave the area for their own safety.
RAY: In the last four years Gordon Sabo has covered hundreds of homes in gel, and he says he's lost fewer than a dozen. His crew has spent a summer on some of the nation's biggest wildfires spraying the sticky gel into homes, many of which would not be standing if left untreated.
For NPR News, I'm Charles Michael Ray in Rapid City, South Dakota.
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