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Wildfire Rx

Where Medical Science Meets Wildfire Prevention
California has one of the severest wildfire seasons in the world. With urban expansion, it also has the largest population living in high-risk burn areas, according to a study by the U.S. Forest Service. Photo by John Towner | Unsplash

Firefighters have a limited arsenal when it comes to managing wildfire: brush control, fire retardants, and a whole lot of hard work. Until last year, few tools existed to stop fire before it started. LaderaTech, a venture co-founded by brothers-in-law Eric Appel and Jesse Acosta, is introducing a prophylactic for fires, a roadside treatment that WIRED magazine has likened to a wildfire vaccine for the landscape.

Preventative Medicine

Eric Appel

The idea for the technology first took shape at a family barbecue. Professor Appel says he likes to talk to experts in other fields, knowing that innovation often happens at these junctures. So, when his brother-in-law, Jesse Acosta, a fire prevention expert turned adjunct professor, mentioned that Highway 101 just north of their alma mater in San Luis Obispo has 10 to 15 fires every year, Appel listened closely. With wildfire, too, it seems that sparks ignite where boundaries meet.

Jesse Acosta
Top to bottom: Eric Appel, Stanford assistant professor of material science and engineering, and Jesse Acosta, Cal Poly San Luis Obispo adjunct professor of natural resource management.

In California’s tinderbox ecology, it takes little to set off a blaze. It could be a cigarette butt flicked out of a car window, a freight train grinding the curve of the tracks too quickly, or—tragically, as in the case of the 2018 blaze in Paradise, Calif.—a malfunction in the electrical grid. In fact, 84 percent of the state’s wildfires ignite in areas already known to be high-risk, such as roadsides or adjacent to utilities infrastructure.

Wouldn’t it be helpful, Acosta mused, to have a preventative method to treat these hotspots? The problem, he explained, is that fire retardants widely in use for fighting active fires are only effective in the short term; they wash off after a heavy dew or fog rolling in from the coast.

“That sounds like a controlled delivery problem to me,” Appel told his brother-in-law.

Getting chemical compounds to stay in the right place at the right time is a familiar conundrum to the Stanford assistant professor of material science and engineering. His biomedical lab designs better medicines by improving their delivery method, for example, allowing a daily injection to instead become an injection every month, or every six months, or even every year. His team is also involved in the current race for a COVID-19 vaccine.

“From a high level, it was exactly in our wheelhouse, whether encapsulating a fire retardant or a medicine for diabetes or a vaccine. I saw this Venn Diagram between our expertise and this huge problem, overlapping in the middle,” he says.

Safety first

Environmental safety was paramount, so Appel decided to collaborate closely with Craig Criddle, a Stanford professor of civil and environmental engineering who studies wastewater and could advise them on the microbiological impact of the chemicals. They selected only ingredients that are biodegradable and nontoxic, using additives commonly found in food, drugs, cosmetics, and fertilizers.

The researchers decided to focus on ammonium polyphosphate, a U.S. Forest Service-approved fire retardant that has been in use for over 70 years. Upwards of 100 million gallons of these retardants are applied annually in firebreaks across the United States.

Appel says they ended up changing only 1 percent of the standard formulas—what he calls the performance enhancing additives. “But that 1 percent is not the footnote, it’s the whole point.”

The new formulation, called Phos-Chek Fortify®, improves how well the fire retardant adheres to plants by over 80 percent, and—crucially—allows the compound to harden on vegetation. Instead of washing off with even mild weather, it stays in place for months, providing protection against wildfires until the heavy winter rains that signal the end of the fire season.

“A common misconception is that we would have to treat vast swaths of wilderness,” says Appel. “That’s not the case—the idea is that treating only 20 feet along the most at-risk roads could prevent a large proportion of fires throughout the state.”

The goal is to create a buffer between infrastructure and wilderness, so sparks don’t flare-up and spread. Treating 1,000 miles of roadway with Fortify would equal about 2,400 acres of total land, a relatively small amount compared to the more than 259,000 acres that burned in California last year.

The energy connection

While the tie between energy and wildfire might have seemed tenuous in past decades, by 2019 it became painfully clear. LaderaTech was gaining momentum right as Pacific Gas & Electric filed for bankruptcy in January 2019, later reaching a $13.5 billion settlement with California wildfire victims.

If the repercussions of wildfire could topple a traditional energy titan, it meant renewable energy startups also needed to pay attention. From solar to wind to grid-scale energy storage, many of the newest renewable technologies still depend on powerlines to carry their inventions forward. As climate change has increased the frequency of wildfire in some regions, this urgency has only grown.

“It was one of the first times where the connection between wildfire and the energy sector became undeniable,” says Appel. “Fire prevention is absolutely related to the transition to clean energy and electrification.”

This is how LaderaTech linked up with the TomKat Center for Sustainable Energy. After carefully progressing from lab experiments to pilot-scale grass burns, the research team was ready to take the next step. An Innovation Transfer grant allowed the researchers to manufacture thousands of gallons of their formulation and put it to the test in fall 2019, performing a full validation study along California State Route 118 together with the help of local fire departments and a contracted hydroseeding company. This stretch of highway from Ventura County to Los Angeles County catches fire nearly 30 times every single year. Published results of the study are forthcoming.

Around the same time, the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (PNAS) published results from their earlier product development and field research, which sparked considerable excitement. Soon municipalities began asking when they could purchase the product.

With lives and ecosystems at stake, the LaderaTech co-founders knew deploying Fortify as quickly as possible was critical. In May 2020, LaderaTech was acquired by Perimeter Solutions, a global leader in fire safety chemicals, and this fall the venture’s technology will be widely available. The acquisition has allowed their technology to scale swiftly and be distributed broadly before this year’s fire danger levels spike. Appel and Acosta will continue on as technical advisers, hopeful for protecting their home state.

“What if we could cut wildfires in California by 50 percent—what if we never have to see another Paradise?”

This research also received support from a Realizing Environmental Innovation Program grant from the Stanford Woods Institute for the Environment.

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