Exclusive: Suppressing the spread of wildfire

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IFSJ sat down with Perimeter Solutions’ new President of Global Fire Safety, Jeff Emery, to discuss wildland fire suppression

Earlier this year Perimeter Solutions announced Jeff Emery as its President of Global Fire Safety, a newly created role which put him in charge of Fire Suppressant and Wildfire businesses at Perimeter Solutions. IFSJ sat down with Jeff to learn about his new role and talk about one of the biggest global issues in fire: wildland firefighting.

What drew you to the role of President of Global Fire Safety?

I have a long history in both aviation and the fire services, so when I looked at what Perimeter does and the focus on aerial and ground-based fire safety – it was a natural fit. We’re working in many cases with those airborne applications of retardants to help slow and stop the progress of wildfires and protect the firefighters on the ground.

The portfolio of Perimeter is terrific, but I really appreciated the service component. I think that’s a piece of Perimeter’s offering that oftentimes doesn’t get as noticed, but we have a large staff of dedicated employees that are working throughout wildfire season any time of the day any day of the week responding to the airbases with mixing and loading of our retardant onto the aircraft to keep them in operation and help our customers be as effective as they can be when fighting wildfire.

Tell me about the role Perimeter Solutions plays in Wildland firefighting?

Perimeter Solutions has nearly 60 years of history in wildland firefighting. We have a number of different solutions and each of them has a unique application, including aerial fire retardants, ground applied fire retardants, Class A foam and mobile foam and mixing equipment. They all play a part of the portfolio and the broader solutions that we provide for our customers on the wildfire protection side.

What are aerial fire retardants and their main applications?

The retardant products that we provide today are mostly ammonium phosphate-based. We have added components to that over the years and a lot of the innovation is to do with accurate deployment and product weight and viscosity.

Accuracy is important because the aircraft is going to want to hit the target whether it’s at 200 feet or 400 feet – you want as straight of a line and as accurate of a drop as possible. The idea is to get a solid and consistent perimeter around the fire with no line breaks that would allow a fire to escape through and you need to make sure it avoids and protects the firefighters on the ground.

When would ground applied fire retardants be used?

In certain cases when a fire is taking hold you will often have times where there are high winds and smoke and it is unsafe to fly the aircraft. In those cases, one of the best tools that are available to those on the ground are ground-based retardants. It’s essentially the same composition of product and works the same as the aerial retardants that would be dropped.

We have a service team that’s available to deploy to any situation. The McKinney Fire is the latest example where we’ve had teams on the ground since the beginning. You look over the first few days of that fire and there were some wet conditions and significant smoke and then some blowing occurred that made it impossible to fly in. Our teams on the ground played a part in that fight in those early days to slow the spread of the fire.

Another ground-based application would be the prevention and protection side of our business. For example, there are roadside applications where you have a history of vehicles overheating going through an uphill section of a highway causing ignitions at the side of the road. These areas we can treat through our ground[1]based technology to keep that area protected throughout the fire season. This same approach can be taken around railroads, utilities infrastructure, or even personal homes, to prevent ignitions or protect those areas from existing fires.

What are the differences between retardants and Class A foams?

The idea of Class A foam is that it is water dependent. It is mixed with foam and effectively makes that water more effective at penetrating, holding, and prohibiting evaporation to allow water to seep in, doing its job more effectively for a longer period of time. Foam is strictly a suppressant. It’s used to put on the fire to help seep into the fuel to help the water do its job better.

Retardants are mixed with water predominantly to help the distribution and application of the product, but even after that the water has evaporated out the product is still doing its job to be able to provide that retardant capability. Typically, about half of the retardant is put into the fire line to suppress it and half outside to keep the fire from spreading

You’re quite involved in the firefighting process beyond foam production, what else do you offer firefighters?

To support our Class A & B foam products, we do produce bladder tanks, equipment to produce, dilute and distribute that foam, making sure its diluted to the right ratios and applied in a way that’s going to be most effective to get that water to do its job.

In the US we supply about 45 full services bases where we supply perimeter employees, equipment and product for those aircrafts and their missions every day. We also supply equipment to a lot of customer staffed bases, which we maintain over time to keep those in good working order to make sure that they are getting the servicing and maintenance they need to remain effective.

Can you tell me about any recent developments in your wildland firefighting solutions?

Europe has seen an unprecedented wildfire season this year and you have a lot of countries that historically did not have the aircraft assets or the history of using retardants in their operations. We are investing in countries across the region in helping to fight that fight. France has been at the forefront with more progressive applications and coordination of wildfire mitigation over the years.

We’ve seen that model now replicated across the region with many countries now conducting trials and putting their aircraft to use with retardants. We also see a lot of work happening in some of these emerging areas like Greece, Portugal, and Croatia. We’re working hand in hand with governments in those countries to enhance their capabilities.

The second piece we’re focusing on is our prevention and protection business which is why we acquired a company called LaderaTech. Prevention is an under-tapped portion of the portfolio and can truly help communities in preventing a small ignition from becoming a large mega fire.

Finally, can you tell me about Perimeter Solutions’ recent contact with San Diego County Board of Supervisors for Roadside Vegetation Management?

 We worked with them on some trials last year on an area stretch from Wildcat Canyon just outside the city of San Diego. The stretch of road is a strong uphill drive that’s seen a history of vehicles overheating, or brake pads coming off and igniting roadside vegetation. When you look at options to prevent that, one method is clearing the vegetation and giving a defensible space and spraying it down with herbicide to keep that regrowth in check. Our application is more efficient and sustainable, where a truck travels up the road and sprays our product to provide lasting protection.

We’ve worked on the area for a couple of years and after the trial year saw multiple ignitions, which were all put out within a matter of square feet. This year we’re extending that mileage, working hand in hand with San Diego country and their Cal Fire units and water tenders to be able to apply our retardant across a broader swath of that highway to protect those communities.

This article was originally published in the September edition of IFSJ. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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