This company wants to make it rain on B.C. wildfires | iNFOnews | Thompson-Okanagan's News Source

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This company wants to make it rain on B.C. wildfires

Safeguard can create curtains of water up to 20 km long to fight wildfires.
Image Credit: Submitted/Safeguardtraining
July 21, 2021 - 6:00 AM

There are many tools used by B.C. Wildfire in battling hundreds of forest fires in B.C.

Rainfall, of course, is the most effective tool but weather forecasters don’t see any significant rain the Thompson or Okanagan regions until September, at least.

READ MORE: Hot dry weather to linger for weeks in Kamloops, Okanagan

Jeff Kelly is the owner of Safeguard, a Fort St. John company that can marshal massive water pumping systems that spray a curtain of water that does the job of a heavy downpour.

“Firefighters are praying for rain right now,” he told “Our water cannons can provide that extra water and we can mechanically recreate rain.”

He developed his water curtain system in 2016 and launched it the following year at the Elephant Hill wildfire that burned almost 192,000 hectares of forest between Ashcroft and Highway 24.

“We did put water on the fire in Elephant Hill but, if they had deployed us earlier, it would have been more effective,” Kelly said.

Since then, his curtain of water was deployed to cover a 10 km stretch near Fort St. James but the wind shifted so it wasn’t needed. His crews were turned back from a fire near Burns Lake because of a perceived lack of water.

He’s not received any calls this year despite developing “standby packages” that can be placed near fire hot zones for fast deployment.

Each standby kit has a 600 horsepower pump to feed 10 massive water cannons – similar to sprinklers seen in hay fields.

Each cannon can fire water 300 feet but, unlike the irrigation sprinklers, can be positioned at a higher angle so they can also shoot water 200 feet in the air in order to get beyond trees that might otherwise block the stream of water.

Each kit can create a curtain of water stretching 3,000 metres long, 300 metres wide and 200 feet into the air. Other units and pumps can be added to cover as much as 20 km.

It’s most efficient to have a good water supply within one kilometre of the cannons. That distance can be increased and more pumps added, but that takes additional time to set up.

Good tractor-trailer access is also vital.

Those limitations mean it's not a tool that can fight all wildfires but it can complement other methods and is cost effective, he said.

“Air tankers and helicopters make sense when you’re in the initial attack stage,” Kelly said. “For example, a lightning strike just hit. You can get water on the fire fast. After you’ve got through the initial attack phase and you’re into sustained attack, that’s where mass water systems make sense.”

At 7.6 million cubic metres of water in 24 hours, he can create a rainforest that’s at least 10 times wetter than any normal rainforest, he said.

That requires a good supply of water but, even a small lake can easily provide enough. The work has to be approved by the province so the impacts on things like fish stock can be mitigated.

The curtain can create a wet fireguard but communities also need to have “spark chasers” and work on fuel reduction efforts because embers from fires can travel kilometres.

“To stop the major fire, we believe that our system will,” Kelly said. “But to stop the embers potentially from travelling over – our curtain’s only 200 feet high. That being said, it does turn everything into a rainforest in front of the fire so the curtain itself may be 200 feet high but we make everything very humid for much further than that.”

Kelly’s background is in moving water. He started the company in 1994.

In 2019, he had the biggest water moving contract in Canada, moving 3.5 million cubic metres of water over a mountain to the Mount Milligan Mine northwest of Prince George. That required 26 of the 600 horsepower pumps.

“We have no shortage of equipment,” Kelly said. “Between us and our allies, we will be able to say yes to every request. We have hundreds of millions of dollars worth of equipment ready to go.”

It takes six people to operate a 10-cannon kit. As much as possible those will be local people, such as off-duty firefighters.

Depending on distance, it can take 24 hours to load equipment in Fort St. John, ship it to a fire hot spot and unload it. The idea of having standby packages is that the loading and travel times are slashed and the fire can be tackled much sooner.

“Our shining feature is project management,” Kelly said. “We can put big teams together and big systems together very fast. We have the engineers. We have the environmental experts. We have the wildfire experts and we have the capacity to run big programs.”

At $5,000 per day for a standby package, he figures the government is getting a bargain. He says at least six packages should be distributed around the province.

Even with a full team deployed, the cost of delivering water is less than a penny a gallon, he said, compared to $3 or more per gallon for air tankers or helicopters.

Safeguard also has something Kelly calls a manifold system.

That’s where the pump is attached to pipes in decreasing sizes to the point where up to 700 B.C. Wildfires hoses can be supplied with high pressure water.

“Firefighters on the front line like a lot of pressure,” Kelly said. “That means less digging (for buried embers). The hydraulic pressure from the hoses will make a big difference.”

His systems could also fill reservoirs to make travel distance for helicopters shorter.

“The combination of things we can do is almost endless,” Kelly said.

He just needs the chance to show what this system can actually do.

“Until our customer understands the value of what we’re offering, and the sheer number of combinations we can do with this access to water, we won’t get that opportunity,” Kelly said. “The wheels of change and innovation in our government turn ever so slowly. We brought in something new and it’s going to take time for them to understand the value that is being offered.”

The learn more about Safeguard, go here.

To see how the water cannons work go here, here and here.

To contact a reporter for this story, email Rob Munro or call 250-808-0143 or email the editor. You can also submit photos, videos or news tips to the newsroom and be entered to win a monthly prize draw.

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