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June 2004


Adapting to fight forest fires

The province of Saskatchewan has adapted a manure drag hose transportation system that is usually used on farms, giving it the ability to create “wet breaks” to fight forest fires.

By Tony Kryzanowski

Saskatchewan has recently introduced a new defense against the threat of forest fire on property and timber, as well as an effective way to extinguish troublesome peat bog fires. The system is based upon laying out long lengths of six-inch, flexible feeder hose directly in the path of an oncoming fire. The hose is wrapped on reels and transported from one location to another using the hose reel transportation system. A farm tractor is used to deploy the hose and lay it on the ground.

The tractor and hose reel are also used to retrieve the hose once the threat of fire disappears. A number of the flexible hoses can be connected together and—when outfitted with booster pumps installed along strategic points in the line—the flexible feeder hose system can be used to transport water over long distances. Saskatchewan owns seven kilometres of the hose. Since the drag hose is six inches in diameter, 1,200 to 1,500 gallons per minute of water can be pumped through it. When protecting property or forest resources, the water can be redirected through a number of smaller hoses that are connected to a special water “thief” every 100 feet of the drag hose. A sprinkler head is mounted at the end of each smaller hose.

The water broadcast from the sprinklers creates a wet break in the path of oncoming fire. Once the system begins operating, this gives fire crews enough time to burn back vegetation behind the wet break, so that even if a spark jumps this barrier, it would find no fuel to burn. “This system provides a never-ending supply of water,” according to Doug Sand, a key player in the system’s development. Sand is co-owner of Sands Liquid Manure Services in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan. “It’s like a mobile water main.” The potential of this system has not yet been fully realized, but it has proven its worth in fighting fires in Saskatchewan since 2002 and during the massive outbreak of wildfires in southern British Columbia in 2003. Saskatchewan loaned the system to BC to use in its battle to save property and forests.

Darcy Stead, heavy equipment technician with Saskatchewan Environment and Resource Management (SERM), says there’s no doubt the wet break system saved property. It was deployed as the last line of defence to stop a fire from spreading east from BC to the Bow Valley area in southern Alberta. “If the fire had gotten to Bow Valley, it would have taken out a lot of homes,” says Stead. The wet break—as well as accompanying fuel abatement techniques like back burning—stopped the fire from reaching the valley.

The flexible drag hose system does not require construction of a firebreak to create a path to lay hose down.  With the wet break system, the vegetation stay put and is soaked down by the sprinklers as part of the system's fire abatement strategy.

The system was also used to successfully protect heritage buildings at the Marble Mountain campground in Kootenay National Park. The system’s ability to pump huge volumes of water over long distances also proved invaluable in providing a source of water for a portable fire retardant base used for helicopters. One huge benefit to using this system, Stead says, is how quickly it can be deployed. Once they arrive on the scene, they can have about 3.5 kilometres of hose stretched out and water pumping through sprinklers within four hours.

It is referred to as Saskatchewan’s “Values Protection Unit,” and was put to use in the province three times last summer—including to protect 100 homes in the Candle Lake area. Saskatchewan’s traditional approach to property protection is to haul water to the site, have tankers on standby, and construct firebreaks using dozers. The province did have a sprinkler system based on four-inch diameter hose, but deploying the equipment was highly labour-intensive.

The flexible drag hose system does not require construction of a firebreak to create a path to lay hose down. This is one of its many advantages. The philosophy behind building a firebreak is to remove as much vegetation as possible in a line in front of the fire using a fleet of heavy equipment and fire crews. Once the threat of fire is over, this approach creates an environmental problem because with no vegetation, there is the potential for land erosion. With the wet break system, the vegetation stays put and is soaked down by the sprinklers as part of the system’s fire abatement strategy.

A limitation to the drag hose system is that it must have access to a large water source to work properly. But Hydro Engineering has developed a continuous priming pump expressly for its fire fighting system, so that the system will also function in fairly shallow water sources.

The corridor only needs to be wide enough to allow the vehicle pulling the hose off the reel to drive through. This wet break defense against advancing forest fire is Doug Sand’s brainchild. The equipment he uses is technology developed by Hydro Engineering, Inc, a company based in Young America, Minnesota. Hydro Engineering developed a drag hose system for transporting animal manure, human and industrial sludge to fields by pumping it, rather than hauling it. Typically, manure is pumped from a storage facility, from a mainline hose to a drag hose, and then injected into cropland through an implement like a pasture rejuvenator or a Hydro Injection Unit.

The drag hose is pulled back and forth across the field by a farm tractor as the manure is applied through the implement. In 2002, Sand owned and operated Hydro Engineering’s manure management equipment as part of his business, and as fate would have it, fire threatened his own property. Forestry officials noticed his drag hose system, and after thinking about it, Sand quickly manufactured a coupling that could be installed at each 660-foot junction where each length of drag hose met. “They say that necessity is the mother of invention,” he says. From that coupling, he connected a series of one-and-a-half inch hoses and connected a standard agricultural impact sprinkler to each hose extension. The system was designed so that a sprinkler is positioned every 100 feet along the length of the drag hose. Thus the wet break concept using manure drag hose transportation technology was born.

A huge benefit of the system is how quickly it can be deployed. They can have about 3.5 kilometres of hose stretched out and water pumping through sprinklers within four hours.

Since then, Hydro Engineering has realized the potential of using its technology in fighting forest fires and has put together a package specifically for that market, including a specialized coupling for a drag hose line connection to the sprinkler hoses. Company owner Tom Huffman says Hydro Engineering has been rather low key in publicizing this concept until now, because it wanted to make sure it could meet all the specifications required in a fire fighting application.

One of the most important considerations was the quality of the six-inch drag hose to handle high water pressure and tough forest environments. “We’re talking about laying hose down in the forest where you’ve got rocks, sticks, trees, all kinds of debris that can cause damage to the hose,” he says. “We were already using a quality hose that could handle that environment.” With the coupling and hose issues solved, the next question was how to handle and transport these long lengths of hose. Hydro Engineering’s hose reel system for laying out and reeling in the hose in manure applications made for an easy transition to the forest, although Sand says there is a real art to handling the equipment.

He works on contract to supply this service to the Saskatchewan government, employing a crew of six workers. The main difference between what Hydro Engineering has to offer and what competitors might come up with is definitely going to be the quality of the hose, says Huffman. The company works with a specific hose supplier that produces a very sturdy and unique product, which he says competitors would have difficulty duplicating. Training in the proper handling of this equipment will be critical, he says. “When you’ve got a piece of hose that costs $8.50 US per foot, you’ve got to have somebody who knows how to handle it off the reel and, of course, putting it back on the hose reel,” says Huffman. The wet break system has also proven effective in fighting peat bog fires. A peat fire is extremely difficult to extinguish and can cover a large area.

The usual approach to extinguishing these fires is to deploy fire crews carrying backpacks filled with water canisters to dig up hotspots, then extinguish them with a direct dose of water. This approach is very time-consuming and labour intensive. However, because peat bogs are usually near a water source, the drag hose system can be laid out across the bog and floods the area with water. The only limitation to the drag hose system is that it must have access to a large water source to work properly.

Hydro Engineering had developed a continuous priming pump expressly for its fire fighting system, so that the system will function in fairly shallow water sources. Stead says he knows of no other six-inch flexible drag hose system out there intended for forest fire fighting comparable to the Hydro Engineering system. It’s unique, he says. The province has purchased one complete system, and will add to it as needed. Other provinces and park officials at Prince Albert National Park have shown considerable interest in the system, as well.

Additional Info
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