Fire retardant played an essential role in limiting the property damage caused by the Okanagan Centre wildfire.
But as fire zone residents begin returning home this week, the concern changed to how to flush the material off their house siding, swimming pools, vehicles, driveways, gravel walkways and yard vegetation.
A town hall forum was held Thursday night at Winfield Memorial Hall where retardant manufacturing representatives addressed those issues with more than 50 Okanagan Centre residents.
Don McKay, environment, health and safety manager for IKL Performance Products, said fire retardant is a minimal risk health product but can prove frustrating to sometimes wash away.
Generally, McKay said warm water with soap and using a soft brush can remove retardant from most surfaces, and for more hard to access areas such as porous surfaces a power washing will be sufficient.
But he added it helps to jump on the retardant quickly to ease the cleaning process, and that opportunity was lost to residents evacuated on Saturday who weren’t able to return home until the following Tuesday.
“It’s unfortunate that it’s been a couple of days lost with the evacuation as it can become baked on and dried out, so it becomes harder to get off something,” McKay said.
“But the product is designed to be washed away by rain water in time. And it does not present any health hazards to wildlife, pets or other farm animals.”
McKay explained that fire retardant is a liquid based fertilizer product with three other key chemical agents.
One is iron oxide which generates the red colouring, so pilots can follow a retardant line from the air and determine where their drops should land.
Another is a thickener additive, similer to what is found in salad dressing and other food products, to help the retardant drop stay together when released from an airplane.
“Without that, it would just spray whichever direction the wind is blowing. The thickening agent allows for a good tight drop. As one person said to me once, retardant doesn’t spray so much on the ground as it plops.”
He said there are also corrosion inhibitors in the product to protect the alumnim-based drop tanks in the airplanes.
“There are no mysteries about retardant. It is made of elements we see in many other products,” he said.
McKay added the retardant is not dropped directly on a fire, but creates a firebreak to cut off access to fuel when there is no time to bulldoze a 30 to 50 feet wide fireguard on the ground.
“What happens is the retardant clings to the trees and vegetation so that when the fire races up to it, it won’t catch on fire as the fire is robbed of the fuel it needs to keep going,” he said.
Meanwhile, Lake Country Fire Chief Steve Windsor said the ministry of transportation will fly a drone early this morning over the fire area to use infrared imaging to detect any hotspots where fires may still be burning off tree roots underground.
Windsor said fire suppression efforts for spot fires will likely continue over the next 10 days, while traffic flaggers limiting access to the burn area will come off Friday night.
“We will put up residential signs asking that only residents venture into that area and both police and citizens’ patrols will randomly drive through the area day and night,” Windsor said.
“We don’t really want anyone in the fire zone residential area that don’t need to be there. We don’t want to see people coming in and scavenging for things on properties where the homes have been lost.”
Asked by an audience member about likely spiked water bills because of the need for excessive watering during this time, Mayor James Baker said the district is aware of that concern and will be looking into how to subsidize some of that cost.
“Before water meters came into place, we already had a pretty good idea what normal outflow use was and we know people have had to keep watering both during the fire and now the cleanup. We will look into that issue going forward,” Baker said.