New fire-block gel aims to improve equine safety

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At 3:30 a.m. one morning in October of 2007, Donna Perry woke up to a hundred foot wall of fire. In the flurried scramble to evacuate, the confounding question became: what to do with the horses.

After getting her own horses to safety, Perry said she and a few others went back to take care of her neighbors ponies who refused to be moved to safety.

The terrifying experience, followed by several long days at the Lakeside Rodeo where most local livestock are taken during fires, put into sharp focus the question of equine emergency response.

At 3:30 a.m. one morning in October of 2007, Donna Perry woke up to a hundred foot wall of fire. In the flurried scramble to evacuate, the confounding question became: what to do with the horses.

After getting her own horses to safety, Perry said she and a few others went back to take care of her neighbors ponies who refused to be moved to safety.

The terrifying experience, followed by several long days at the Lakeside Rodeo where most local livestock are taken during fires, put into sharp focus the question of equine emergency response.

“We have no 911 for horse people,” said Perry. “We didn’t know what to do. Where can we even go?”

Insurance for barns, evacuation procedures and precautions, and fire protection for those already trapped are issues of great concern to Perry, and on Monday morning, Feb. 26, many of her fears were put to rest.

Atira Systems, aimed at providing a high-performing fire block gel, referred to as strong water, performed a demonstration of the next-generation gel technology, hosted by the Heartland Fire Department in El Cajon.

After coating a dummy barn with the gel and lighting it on fire, Captain Woodrow Matthews suited up and measured the temperatures, which, he said, were close to two and a half times stronger than most wildfires. The dummy barn remained largely unharmed.

“Fire departments have been using foam for so long but the foam evaporates just as quickly as water,” said Matthews, “Whereas our gel, we applied an hour before the burn and it stood up an hour later.”

Matthews called the demonstration “one hundred percent successful.”

Two more demonstrations were done inside the building, with similar success.

Stephen Haddix, co-founder of Atira Systems, said the old solutions, though they did save buildings, were never well-liked by the fire fighting community or the neighborhoods they work to protect.

“Having been a firefighter in my early career and then being a manufacturer, I had a love for combining the two and this was the the opportunity that I thought needed to be addressed the most,” said Haddix.

But creating a better solution was like reinventing the wheel. Haddix spent four years developing the current solution in a barn in Oregon. Haddix said the effort paid off.

“Almost everything else in the fire industry is toxic to firefighters and to the environment in some form or another,” said Haddix. “To solve those problems, we had to change the chemistry entirely. Ours is the first and only one that you can pump through the hose and nozzle of a standard fire engine. We use castor oil as our solvent, so everything is plant-based, green.”

The eco-friendly nature of the product is a big draw, attracting sponsors like late actor Paul Newman’s daughter Nell and Walt Disney’s granddaughter, Joanna Miller.

Co-founder Jeff Denholm said environmental consciousness is an important goal of the organization. Atira is the Pawnee goddess of the earth, making the company’s goals apparent even in its name.

“We’re a huge environmental company,” he said. “We can actually but the gel on a horse or in the barn and it won’t affect them adversely.”

The gel can last for hours, actively helps lower temperatures and can prevent flashback.

Atira Systems has been testing the product with top state officials for the last three years, contributing two engines to the Blue Cut fire in San Bernardino, saving 200 homes, and two more engines to the Napa Valley and Thomas fires, saving nearly $200 million in assets.

Haddix said this is a monumental step for fire safety.

“I would liken this to the transition in the fire industry from the horse and carriage steamers to the automotive fire pumpers,” said Haddix. “This is probably every bit as meaningful as that was a hundred years ago.”

California has more horses per square mile than any other state in the country. Perry said that the time has finally come to address the concerns of livestock owners in East County and throughout Southern California.

“What I want for everyone to know is that you’re not alone,” said Perry. “There are solutions. This is a brand new day.”

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