Simi Valley, California, USA — William Cleary believes aerial firefighting could become child’s play.
Five years ago, his son drenched him with a water balloon and got him to thinking.
“He was three stories up and I was walking, and he still managed to hit me square in the head,” said Cleary, a Boeing engineer. “I thought, why can’t we be this accurate with water on fires?”
So he started working on a system to use giant water balloons to put out wildfires.
Now, Cleary has a shared patent, the support of two Fortune 500 companies and a small team of designers and engineers at his disposal on a project that could change the way fires are fought from the air.
The basic concept is simple: Biodegradable plastic balloons four feet in diameter hold 240 gallons of water; they are enclosed in cardboard boxes that are torn open by the wind when pushed out the back of a cargo plane; the balloons burst in midair, making it rain in the desert.
With the use of GPS coordinates and wind-speed calculations, the balloons could be dropped with precision from a safe altitude high above the flames, the developers say.
The balloons which have yet to be tested on a real wildfire would be used in addition to the usual aerial firefighting equipment: helicopters with water buckets, and air tankers.
After the inspiration from his son, Cleary started tossing water balloons off a parking garage to study their fall. But his project really took off when a paper he wrote about his concept won a Boeing innovation contest and $100,000 in research and development funding that went with it.
Paper products giant Weyerhaeuser designed the corrugated cardboard container that prevents the balloons from leaking or sloshing around in a plane’s cargo hold.
“Our packages are designed to stay together and he was asking me to have this package blow apart completely backwards from what we’re used to doing,” said Rick Goddard, Weyerhaeuser’s bulk-packaging sales director.
The system has evolved over five years from hard plastic beachball-size balloons to the enormous water bladders made by Flexible Alternatives, a Simi Valley plastics company that also makes the straps that attach to the box lid and pull the balloon apart in midair.
The water balloons could make any plane with a ramp, a cargo bay, and a specialized GPS system into a firefighter. A C-130 cargo plane, which the Air National Guard uses to drop supplies, could fit 16 water balloons, or more than 3,800 gallons of water or fire retardant per trip.
An ordinary firefighting helicopter can hold more than 2,000 gallons of water or fire retardant, while the Forest Service’s air tankers can hold 2,700 gallons of liquid in a tank permanently installed on each aircraft.
“This is like calling in the cavalry,” Cleary said.
Most important, said Cleary, the planes would drop the water bombs accurately from high above the flames instead of precariously skimming the smoldering hills, the way air tankers do now.
According to the U.S. Forest Service, there were 20 aerial firefighting accidents and 13 fatalities between 2006 and 1996. Cleary said it is easy to convince the pilots who fly these missions that there’s a better way.
The system is ready to be tested on a real fire on private land, Goddard said. The government requires extensive testing before new firefighting technology can be used on federal land.
The Forest Service has not yet run the numbers to see if buying thousands of disposable box-and-balloon kits at an initial price of $300 each can save enough money on equipment, manpower and other costs to make the technology worthwhile.
“It costs several millions of dollars to install a tank on an aircraft, and that lasts at least 15 years,” said Carl Bambarger, an expert in aerial firefighting with the Forest Service’s Technology and Development Center in San Dimas.
Bambarger said Cleary is not the first to come to him with the idea of packaging fire retardant in containers to drop from planes, but he’s “the only one who’s gotten this far.”
While Cleary and Goddard say the cardboard and plastic will naturally break down, the debris could still prove to be an obstacle.
“There’s a lot of boxes, plastic bags and lanyards that are going to land in the forest,” Bambarger said. “The first person who gets hit by a fluttering piece of cardboard and sues the Forest Service and we’ve had sillier things happen the cost savings is gone.”