Many wildfires start in familiar places to firefighters, but when conditions are dry and windy, they can explode in size before resources can be put in place to get them out. But what if there was a way to snuff out the fire before it ever starts?
Roughly 84% of wildfires across the country are started by people, according to the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. It's arson in some cases, but the vast majority are sparked by power lines, campfires or equipment failures.
Standing near Via Volcano Road in Riverside County, Susan Frommer of the Southwest Riverside County Fire Safe Council says, "For whatever reason, we've had quite a few fire starts along here."
Areas like that one often see fire on steep inclines, where heavy vehicles struggle, overheat and can set the brush on fire.
That's information all too familiar for Wes Bolsen, the Business Director of Perimeter Solutions.
"When roughly 85% of fires are starting adjacent to road sides and underneath power lines, those are solvable, treatable aspects," he said.
Treating fire prone areas with a long-lasting fire retardant was the idea behind Phos-Chek Fortify. Phos-Chek has been used for years to put out burning fires, but it doesn't stick to vegetation for long.
In an effort to solve that problem, Stanford researcher Eric Appel engineered a way to allow a one-time treatment to provide protection for the entire fire season.
"We don't want the stuff to stick around for years. We wanted it to just provide protection during the peak fire season, and then as soon as the rains come to simply wash away," said Appel, an assistant professor of Material Science and Engineering.
The gel components are already found in cosmetics, food or pharmaceutical agents, so they're biodegradable and won't harm the environment.
As part of a pilot program, the Southwest Riverside County Fire Safe Council is using $30,000 from a Cal Fire grant to treat one mile of Via Volcano road with Phos-Chek Fortify.
"It's very important that we look at other alternatives to the mechanical clearing and the cost of weed treatments that are normal, and they're not good for the environment," said the council's Susan Hurst, who hopes the pilot project proves successful.
The product also provides other advantages which can be seen when crossing Via Volcano Road into the Santa Rosa plateau. Traditional efforts like removing vegetation or cutting back grasses are not available because the area is environmentally protected.
That isn't an issue when using Fortify, Bolsen said.
"You think about leaving vegetation in place is a super important aspect of soil health, vegetation, both plant and animal habitat being able to stay there, versus the alternative of tearing all of that vegetation out," he added.
A standard piece of application equipment is all that's needed to treat a 10-foot strip along both sides of the road. And that ease of application can also be used under power lines or for more defensible space around homes.
"There's millions of dollars worth of property and lives at risk up here so we want to do whatever we can, as a fire safe council, to try out different methods and see what will help us," Frommer said.