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This sprayable gel could prevent wildfires from catching hold

Scientists hope to stop wildfires before they turn destructive and deadly.

The image on the left shows an untreated area of grass, while the image on the right shows how a fire died inside a treated area.
Eric Appel

The usual pattern for wildfires is they ignite, then they spread, and then firefighters go to battle to mitigate the damage. A team of researchers wants to stop that destructive process before it even starts. 

Scientists and engineers from Stanford have created a gel-like fluid that can be sprayed on at-risk areas of land. The cellulose-based fluid acts as a carrier for fire retardants. While traditional fire retardant applications only work short-term, the gel's strength is that it can last through wind and rain, making it feasible as a preventive measure.

The researchers published a study on the gel this week in the journal Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. "This has the potential to make wildland firefighting much more proactive, rather than reactive," said the paper's senior author Eric Appel, a materials science and engineering professor at Stanford.  

Devastating wildfires have spread across California and other places around the world in recent years. The 2018 Camp Fire was the deadliest in California's history.

The researchers put the gel through field tests and said it can potentially last through an entire fire season. The team is working with California authorities to test the fluid on roadside areas that may be prone to wildfires. The gel, which is described as "environmentally benign," eventually washes away. 

The gel could become a powerful new tool for wildfire prevention, which has become an increasingly hot topic as climate change and periods of drought feed into more intense fire seasons.