European fire suppressant tested stateside for first time ever at Rifle Garfield County Airport

Two firefighters look on after lighting a large pile brush on fire at Rifle Garfield County Airport on Monday morning.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Rifle Garfield County Airport played host Monday to the nation’s very first exhibition of a fire suppressant common to Europe.

Burning brush piles collected from county land surrounding the airport, Colorado River Fire Rescue joined the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control in testing what’s called FS-01. The chemical product was created by Green Canyon Ventures based in Miami but has only been deployed in places like Spain and Portugal.

Dave Toelle is an aviation projects manager with the Colorado Division of Fire Prevention and Control and is based out of the Rifle airport. He said the suppressant could completely stop fires in its tracks as opposed to retardant, which is better known to slow a fire.

The suppression chemical, noted as biodegradable and non-toxic, could increase chances for wildland firefighters to perform a less vulnerable approach to mitigating fires while expanding their coverage.

“You can apply it without direct attack,” Toelle said, “and you don’t get a lot of rekindle.”

A firefighter douses inflammable liquid on a brush pile at Rifle Garfield County Airport on Monday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

It took 3-4 crews, a dump trailer and more to set up piles of sagebrush and greasewood into something that mimics wildland fire conditions. What spans 10-feet wide and 45-feet long, the piles took six days to assemble, Toelle said.

But facilitating a controlled prescribed burn is no easy task. The winds have to be just right, and there can’t be any rain (the originally scheduled controlled burn was in fact postponed in September).

More critically, the chemical has to be applied to the brush pile at the perfect time, otherwise it essentially isn’t as effective and thus kills the test.

This test had two piles. One having been covered in FS-01 for one hour, the other for two.  

“It’s very, very challenging,” Toelle said. “You get a lot of gray hair being a burn boss, that’s for sure.”

Head count Tuesday morning was about 20 people, mostly firefighters, gathered in a large field east of the runway formerly used for cement mixing. With operators behind thermal imaging and video cameras pointed at a brush pile, firefighters ignited it using a drip torch and lighter. 

Out further, a fire truck stood ready with a hose. All nearby fire hydrants were also engaged and connected to fire hoses. The flame would reach 1800 degrees Fahrenheit before it brought the brush to a smolder.

Toelle said they had to warn many people in the county about the smoke.

Flames rise as firefighters watch a controlled burn take effect at Rifle Garfield County Airport on Monday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

Tracy LeClair, a division of fire prevention and control communications and outreach specialist, brought a well-used Canon camera to the burn. She cited how 2020 alone was the worst year to date in Colorado wildfire frequency and that this chemical could be a game changer. But it all depends on its feasibility.

“We’re seeing larger fires,” she said. “We’re seeing more destructive fires.”

“This could be a pilot program that takes off.”

An earlier training led to Rifle as the proving grounds for the new chemical mixture. Toelle said he was participating in a demonstration on aerial delivered water enhancers when he was contacted by Green Canyon Ventures Manager Rodolfo Henrichs. A few years later Rifle Garfield County Airport Director Brian Condie showed Toelle the pad and everything clicked.

“It’s a great place to do this,” Toelle said.

Monday’s burn was also accompanied by thermal imaging from a multi-mission aircraft as well as a smoke camera installed at Harvey Gap State Park. The goal with this is to adopt a concept common to California wildfires: installing tons and tons of cameras around the forest to better track the onslaught of fires.

Flame rises from a controlled burn at the Rifle Garfield County Airport on Monday.
Ray K. Erku/Post Independent

If the program also takes off, Colorado could be the next state to have a smoke camera in every neck of its woods.

“It’s a camera instead of a person and there’s earlier detection,” LaClair said. “This keeps the fires small.”

Right around when the rising flames reached the midway point of the brush pile was when it reached a lull. Onlooking firefighters immediately noticed a delay in the fire line, smiling and making comments.

The chemical didn’t completely suppress the fire, but it looked promising. The fire was ignited around 11:55 a.m. It didn’t completely consume the entire bush until after 12:10 p.m.

“Everyone was nervous,” LaClair said. “It was hitting a line, but it definitely slowed its progress for a little bit.”

Support Local Journalism

Support Local Journalism

Readers around Glenwood Springs and Garfield County make the Post Independent’s work possible. Your financial contribution supports our efforts to deliver quality, locally relevant journalism.

Now more than ever, your support is critical to help us keep our community informed about the evolving coronavirus pandemic and the impact it is having locally. Every contribution, however large or small, will make a difference.

Each donation will be used exclusively for the development and creation of increased news coverage.