The devestating Blue cut fire failed to burn any homes that had been covered with fire-resistant gel, including a new version being tried by fire officials for the first time, according to the San Bernardino Fire Department.
For more than two decades, gel has proven its ability to resist flames and protect buildings.
"We've had a 100 percent success rate so far," said San Bernardino County Fire Capt. Shane Glaze, who described his department as an early adopter of the technology. "Nothing is fireproof, but we apply the gel, and for the most part, the fire cannot penetrate through."
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Sadly, as quickly as the Blue Cut Fire expanded, the county's gel strike teams could not get to every structure that was threatened, and some 100 burned.
Where firefighters have hoped for gel improvement, Glaze said, is in the first generation delivery system, not compatible with the tanks most every fire engine or truck with pumper carries to hold fire-suppressing foam. Instead, a five gallon, 40-plus pound container of gel is usually mounted in a backpack that feeds the gel into a small water hose.
Generally one tank has enough gel for an average size house, and then the firefighter must re-load another. The cost per home can exceed $100.
Apart from the weight and the lack of capacity, the low pressure system also limits the roaming distance from the water source to under 300 feet, Glaze said.
In the past year, San Bernardino County has been working with a newer technology developed by Oregon-based Atira Systems. It offers what Glaze sees as breakthrough technology: the gel is formulated to be stored and delivered directly from a standard foam tank with a standard pump.
This means not only doing away with the heavy backpack, but also larger capacity, and the gel mixture can be delivered at a higher pressure and volume so each house can be covered more quickly. What's more, the higher pressure extends the hose run to a thousand feet, which means firefighters can gel houses that were previously inaccessible, Glaze said.
"We can spray it, let the fire front come through, pull our firefighters out of harm's way, fire front goes through, we come back in immediately, we knock down any hotspots, and that's how we've been doing it," Glaze said. "We've been very successful, not only in protecting the homes, but in ... firefighters' safety."
Not every fire agency uses gel. In Los Angeles, city fire equips its engines with gel containers. Los Angeles County relies on foam and does not use gel, but can increase the foam concentration in certain cases to offer structures some protection, the department said.
Some insurance companies have set up brigades to gel the houses of policy-holders when threatened by wildfire.
Home gel kits are also available from manufacturers, such as Florida based Barricade, which developed the first gel product for fire fighting. The company advocates home storage of gel in areas potentially threatened by wildfire, so that even if the resident is not prepared to apply the gel, it's already there for firefighters, said Barricade Founder and President John Bartlett.