A NEW SYSTEM COULD STOP RAGING FLAMES FROM BURNING DOWN YOUR HOME
The charred remains of a multimillion- dollar mansion crumbled under Randall Griffin’s work boots. “The entire neighbourhood was burned to ashes,” he says. “There was literally one home left.” Now, less than two years after Griffin surveyed the aftermath of the wildfires that destroyed more than 3,000 homes in Southern California, his group at the Department of Homeland Security’s Science and Technology Directorate is testing a deployable tent that could shield homes from the most ferocious fires. Most houses are in danger well before flames hit their doorstep— burning embers can travel up to a mile in the wind. So DHS teamed with Foster-Miller to adapt a tent typically used to protect military vehicles from chemical attacks into a system that files immediately and send out response crews before things get out of hand.
Better situational awareness is only the beginning. Knowing precisely which areas are at highest risk of fires could transform how we fight them. Voltree Power in Canton, Massachusetts, has developed a shoebox-size sensor that, deflects flames from houses. A year and a few hundred yards of fireproof, rugged nylon cordura later, they produced the SAFE Quick Cover, a rooftop system that rolls out the fabric at the flip of a switch, covering an evacuated house in minutes. (You couldn’t stay in the covered house, because the fire’s heat would still kill you.) “A homeowner could deploy the system on their way out the door,” says Rob Knochenhauer, the lead engineer on the project for Foster-Miller.
Fires that raged through Australia earlier this year killed 173 people, many of whom were caught in the blaze while trying to save their house. “People put themselves in harm’s way because they want a fire truck in front of their home before they will evacuate,” Griffin says. “Quick Cover could save lives while protecting property.”—COREY BINNS planted one per acre, could gather microclimate information, such as spikes in temperature and drops in humidity that signal a nascent fire. In April the Forest Service began field-testing the device, which can run for a decade on voltage generated from the pH imbalance between a tree and soil.
To help deal with the flood of new information, Zimmerman’s team launched the Wildland Fire Decision Support System, an online tool that crunches data in real time, using fire behavior models and weather forecasts. The Forest Service and the National Park Service will use the program to determine whether to attack flames on foot or call in planes to dump fire-suppressant gel.
Even with technological advances in firefighting, perhaps the best way to minimize damage is to recognize that fires play a necessary role in restoring certain ecosystems, and so we should stop building in at-risk areas and use fire-retardant materials, says fire ecologist Max Mortiz of the University of California at Berkeley. Mortiz recently published data predicting that climate change will increase wildfire activity across much of the U.S. “We don’t fight earthquakes and floods—we coexist with them,” he says. “We need to learn to do the same with wildfires.”—COREY BINNS
Source of Information : Popular Science July 2009