A Novel Way to Prevent Wildfires

A primer on wildfires and the future of wildfire prevention with spray-on gels.
Kashyap Vyas

If you have been following international news, then you know that the occurrences of wildfires have increased significantly in recent years. This is not entirely surprising to scientists who have been studying the effects of climate change, as they've sort of been expecting it, but it is still as damaging.

Wildfires are uncontrolled fires in areas covered by vegetation such as forests or bushes and grasslands. They are alternately known as forest fires or bush fires.


For all purposes, they can be called disasters.

The problem is that we cannot anticipate these fires, and even if we could, there's not much we could do to prevent them. But that’s about to change with this recent discovery.

Before we get to that, let us take a brief look at what causes wildfires and the effects of wildfires.

What causes wildfires?

Wildfires can be natural or human-made.

Human-made causes are mostly as a result of carelessness and account for 90% of forest fires. An unattended campfire or an unextinguished cigarette butt can cause these fires.

Other common man-made causes are burning debris, fireworks, and accidental or intentional arson.

Naturally, a fire can rise from erupting volcanoes or lightning. When lightning strikes trees, power cables, or any other combustible material, it can lead to wildfires.

Once the fire starts, it spreads rapidly based on the concentration of the flammable vegetation, topography, and weather conditions. A wildfire can spread quickly, sometimes reaching speeds up to 6.7 miles an hour in forests and 14mph in grasslands.

Where are wildfires most common?

Wildfires occur in some parts of every continent, with the exception of Antarctica. They are common in the forests of the United States and Canada, as well as Australia and South Africa globally.

In Europe, Portugal sees the most numbers of wildfires. Greece and Russia are also prone to fires as well.

These are usually areas with enough moisture and rainfall to support the growth of forests that also feature long periods of dry heat. California wildfires took the headline in 2018.

It was replaced by the Arctic fires in 2019.

The effects of wildfire

Wildfires can have a devastating impact on the nation. The primary loss that comes to mind is that of human lives.

Even though the premises in nearby areas are usually vacated, and the fire is contained, there is an imminent risk to lives. The California fires of 2018 claimed 85 human lives.

There is also the loss of property, which is enormous. Thousands are left homeless due to the destruction, and many more houses get damaged.

Also, huge capital goes into trying to control these fires. The number is as high as $2 billion annually just in the US.

Lastly, the loss of habitat and forest destruction is massive. 149,000 acres of forest were consumed in the forest fire. This not only destroys important natural habitats, but it also consumes thousands of trees and releases hazardous levels of pollutants into the atmosphere.

But wildfires aren’t necessarily bad for the environment. Naturally occurring wildfires can be seen as nature’s way of returning resources trapped in the dead or diseased matter to return to earth.

They also kill disease-carrying plants and harmful insects.

How are wildfires stopped?

There are two significant ways of stopping the fires from spreading outwards. One way is to use water and other retardants to douse the fire with hopes of extinguishing it. 

Depending on the conditions, specific areas may be given priority if it is estimated that they will accelerate faster and might get difficult to control later on.

If the fire is too big for that, we may clear the surrounding area of the forest by removing any possible fuel source. This way, the fire gets contained within the region.

This cleared-out line is known as the control line. Ironically, sometimes firefighters may use fire to create a control line that is big enough to contain the fire.

Water bodies such as rivers can act as naturally occurring control lines. Moreover, having one around means planes and helicopters can carry water from them and drop it on top of the fire.

Once the fire begins to clear, the firemen make sure that there are no embers that are still burning as they may spark a fire again. Fighting a wildfire requires active strategizing and action.

Spray-on gels

As children, we’re taught that it's better to prevent than to cure. The exact saying applies to wildfires as well. There have been many chemicals employed to do just this. 

Unfortunately, they get washed away or decay into constituents. But a group of researchers at Stanford might have just made a breakthrough, as reported in a study published in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences.

The newly discovered gel-like fluid can be sprayed to make the retardants last longer. It is expected to be environment-friendly, and the initial tests have returned positive results. 

They are stable enough to last entire seasons, where chances of wildfires are at the peak. If approved, it could save millions of dollars in the prevention and control of wildfires.

The technology is a cellulose-based gel-like fluid that is resistant to the effects of wind, rain, and other harsh environments, making it better suited as a preventive substance than the currently used suppressants and retardants, which act for much shorter durations.

This solution is considered “more proactive, rather than reactive,” to quote Eric Appel, the study’s senior author.

The simple idea is that the majority of wildfires break out at the same hotspots like roadsides, campgrounds, and remote electrical lines. If the forests around these areas are sprayed with this solution, the fires will get contained and easily manageable, thus saving the state millions in both damages and counter-measures.

The researchers are working with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) to test their solution. So far, it has been tested on grass and chamise and found to work even after half an inch of rainfall. 

Thus, it is established to have better resistance to rains. The next test is to see its viability in high-risk roadside areas.


It is said that necessity is the mother of invention. There is a huge necessity for a solution like this, particularly in high-risk areas such as California. At the same time, our unscrupulous behavior that led to these situations in the first place, calls for a solution, and preventive measures have to be taken one way or another.

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