Putting a damper on wildfires

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Bernie Higgins, consultant to Mosmart UK, considers what more can be done in wildfire response and prevention, whilst protecting firefighters and the environment

As global temperatures rise and heatwaves and drought become more common, wildfires are set to become more frequent and severe.

The UN Environment Program is predicting that wildfires will increase by 14% globally by 2030, 30% by the end of 2050 and 50% by 2100.

We only have to look at the last few years to see that there is an upward trend, with many European countries being severely affected, including Italy, Spain, France, Portugal, and Greece.

The rising threat

Europe saw one of the worst heatwaves on record in 2022, with wildfires burning out of control.

One such fire occurred in the Gironde region in south-west France.

Amid a fierce drought and high temperatures, a fire broke out in the Landiras area destroying 15,000 hectares of pine forest.

It was brought under control but then reignited again a month later, progressing quickly and burning through another 7,600 hectares of land.

It forced the evacuation of around 10,000 people and the closure of a major stretch of motorway between Bordeaux and Bayonne.

Meanwhile in the UK, a devastating grassland fire swept through the village of Wennington in the east of London during 40-degree temperatures, on the hottest day since UK records began.

A garden compost heap combusted and fire ravaged 40 hectares of dry vegetation, destroying around 20 houses and buildings in its wake.

15 fire engines and 100 firefighters from surrounding fire stations were deployed to tackle the fire which took more than eight hours to extinguish.

This was the first time that London had experienced a wildfire with a rural/urban interface.

A similar pattern was also seen in 2023, with a heatwave over much of Europe sparking widespread wildfires.

According to data from the European Forest Fire Information System (EFFIS), 463,018 hectares of land burned across the continent between January and mid-November 2023.

Greece was one of the worst countries hit last summer.

Several weeks of sweltering heat and strong winds turned the country into a tinderbox, causing fires to spread easily.

In July, a fire broke out on the island of Rhodes, sparking the country’s largest ever evacuation of residents and tourists.

On the mainland, in the north-east of the country, the largest single wildfire recorded in the EU since EFFIS started keeping records in 2000 began and raged uncontrollably for 16 days, scorching more than 80,000 hectares of land.

It destroyed homes on the outskirts of Alexandroupolis city and vast areas of Dadia National Park and surrounding pine forests, which were home to an array of birds and wildlife.

Hundreds of firefighters were deployed to the region, backed up by planes and helicopters, from nine European countries.

Now that our summers and fire seasons are hotter, drier, and longer, wildfires are wreaking havoc on the environment, wildlife, human health, and our villages, towns and cities.

They also have a significant economic impact as the cost of planning, prevention, response and recovery is huge.

The World Health Organization has reported that wildfire smoke contains a mixture of harmful pollutants that are hazardous when inhaled.

Wildfire smoke is associated with premature deaths and can cause and exacerbate diseases of the lungs and heart, brain and nervous system, skin, gut, kidneys, eyes, nose, and liver.

In addition to contaminating the air with toxic pollutants, wildfires also simultaneously impact the climate by releasing large quantities of carbon dioxide and other greenhouse gases into the atmosphere, which further fuels climate change.

The wildfire challenge

With wildfires increasing in number and intensity across the globe, Fire departments are facing huge challenges.

Wildfires often occur in remote locations with limited access to water and can spread and change direction with frightening speed making them very difficult to control.

They also take up a huge amount of time and resources at a time when departments’ budgets are being squeezed, which leads to stretched services, and the potential halt of valuable community and fire prevention/risk management work.

There are a number of strategies and tactics deployed by fire departments to tackle wildfires.

Proactive wildfire mitigation and management is crucial, for example creating firebreaks, where land is stripped of any possible fuel for the fire, helping to prevent fire spread.

Firefighters typically use water to fight wildfires, although in some countries chemical fire retardants are also used, dropped from planes and helicopters in a red powder form.

Backfires can also be used, where fires are deliberately started on the ground to advance towards the burning wildfire, with the aim of burning up any potential fuel in the path of the progressing wildfire.

Suppression solutions

New firefighting techniques and practices are now emerging and the fire industry is investing in new products and technology to help contain wildfires and prevent them from spreading.

Marine3 Fire, for example, is a new wetting agent, just introduced to the UK and Europe.

It is specifically designed to fight Class A fires and has the potential to revolutionise wildland firefighting.

Marine3 Fire is a mineral-based solution, completely free of harmful chemicals, which contains a unique blend of biodegradable surfactants.

This means when added to water, it reduces the water’s surface tension, allowing much greater penetration and saturation of combustible materials, and significantly cooling the temperature.

As a result, fires are extinguished much faster than using water alone, and less water is needed.

This is ideal, as most wildfires are in remote areas and water is often in scarce supply.

The harmful effects of toxic smoke particles on firefighter health is clearly a big concern, and Marine3 Fire can also help to reduce this, alongside other contamination mitigation measures.

Less toxic smoke is produced when using the solution as it helps to capture and contain CO2 gases and reduces the amount of smoke being released into the atmosphere.

In controlled conditions, we undertook testing on a range of Class A fires to see how Marine3 Fire compared to using water alone.

The results were very impressive, with Marine3 Fire extinguishing the fires up to 80% faster.

Notably, in every scenario, reignition was also prevented and considerably less smoke was emitted.

For obvious reasons, when tackling widespread fires of this scale, any product that can reduce the time taken to extinguish the fire and prevent reignition is a valuable asset.

A wildfire can last for days, putting a huge strain on personnel and resources.

We believe that Marine3 Fire could also prove particularly advantageous in the creation and maintenance of firebreaks and essential escape routes.

Saturating these barriers and the surrounding areas with Marine3 Fire could help to strengthen firebreaks and protect against ‘flying brands’ breaching defences.

Marine3 Fire is a cost-effective solution that is very easy to use.

For Class A fires, a 1% dilution is most effective and can be added directly to the main fire engine water tank or portable pump system and delivered through the hose in the same way as water.

It is compatible with standard equipment, including in-line inductors, round the pump proportioners and pick up tubes, so no additional equipment is required.

Currently, Mosmart is offering a free trial of Marine3 Fire and any interested fire departments should get in touch.

For further information, and to view official test videos from the Fire Service College in the UK, visit: www.mosmart.uk/fire.

The introduction of this product is just one example of how scientific developments can make an impact and help the fire industry respond to new and emerging challenges.

What is clear is that wildfires are here to stay, and they will become more frequent and aggressive.

The key to tackling wildfires will be investment in planning, prevention, response and recovery and experiences and learnings must be shared across international boundaries.

The introduction of products like Marine3 Fire, can only help towards the end goal, helping to reduce the human and environmental impact of wildfires, improving incident times, and reducing the risk of reignition.

About the author

Bernie Higgins M.I.Fire.E and DipNEBOSH, is a consultant to Mosmart UK, Director at the Fire Industry Association and Chair of Fire and Rescue Equipment and Services Council.

This article was originally published in the January 2024 issue of International Fire & Safety Journal. To read your FREE digital copy, click here.

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