SONOMA (KPIX 5) — A Dutch company has come up with a way to potentially extinguish wildfires in record time. It’s environmentally friendly, too, but the promising product is proving to be a tough sell in the U.S.
Forest fires in California are getting bigger, hotter and more frequent than ever before. Yet firefighters are still battling them the traditional way: dropping fire retardant around their perimeter and digging firelines.
Cortijn van Valkenburg and his partner Fred Bok represent a new product called PTX, which was invented by scientists in the Netherlands. This product presents a new solution that literally extinguishes flames.
In a recent demonstration at the NASA Ames Research Center in Mountain View, six wooden pallets were set on fire and the flames shortly leaped to 15 feet high. When the pallets were fully engulfed, a demonstrator approached with a garden hose that sprayed billows of white smoke.
When the smoke cleared, the fire was completely out. It only took 58 seconds.
“I think it will make a huge difference,” said van Valkenburg. “You get a chemical reaction more or less. It takes out the oxygen, and in this process it takes out the heat as well, so the fire is gone immediately.
The company claims that not only does PTX put out fires faster than any other additive on the market, but that it also cools burning wood almost instantly so that it can’t re-ignite.
It is 100% biodegradable, which sets it apart from the current fire retardant that leaves behind a toxic mess when dropped from planes.
Van Valkenburg says he has spent months trying to pitch the green alternative to firefighting agencies, but to no avail.
“If you look at the firefighting business, not really a lot has been changed the last 30 years. So of course there are some people who want to keep it the same way for the next 30 years as well,” he said.
Firefighters have exclusively been using a product called Phos-chek to fight fires for decades. Introducing something completely different means potentially going through years of testing.
“I am all for an improvement on what we have, if that exists,” said Nick Welsh, an aerial supervisor at Cal Fire’s Sonoma Air Attack Base.
He says he has to abide by U.S. Forest Service rules. Since PTX is not approved by the federal government, Cal Fire can’t consider it either.
“For what we have now, NVP-FX works very well for us. And it’s what we use in the state of California,” said Welsh.
Phos-chek is also the only additive allowed for fighting house fires.
But after watching the PTX demo at in Mountain View, a Bay Area fire chief was convinced.
“You can hear about it, someone can tell you about it, but actually seeing it firsthand made me more of a believer,” said John Healy, the fire chief of Belmont, Foster City and San Mateo.
Healy was one of six fire chiefs on hand for the PTX demo.
“The most impressive part about it was the small amount of water that was needed to extinguish what I would say was a significant demonstration fire. We would have definitely used well over 50 to 100 gallons to extinguish that same amount,” he said.
Less water means less damage in structure fires.
Chief Healy was also impressed with how fast the charred pallets cooled.
“I think it would save us time on scene. Our investigators want to come in and do an investigation and they are usually standing around for about 1-2 hours.”
He hopes more real world testing can be done to bring PTX to the U.S. market. But that all hinges on Forest Service approval, which is not happening.
The Forest Service declined KPIX 5’s request for an interview, but in a statement they said, “PTX does not meet the requirements of either our water enhancer or foam specifications.”
For van Valkenburg and his team, the process has been frustrating. “It is. Especially if you see the fires getting so big and devastating. And they are throwing all this toxic stuff on the ground. It’s really hard to believe that we are not there yet,” said van Valkenburg.
Since the federal government isn’t budging, the Dutch company is turning to the U.S. private sector.
PTX will be sold to an emerging market: private firefighting services, which don’t have to abide by the strict rules of the Forest Service.