The slide fire burns near 89 A south of Flagstaff, Arizona on Wednesday. / Tom Tingle, AP
While it's normal to see air tankers dropping massive loads of water onto raging wildfires, an Australian researcher says he may have a better idea: explosives.
Professor Graham Doig says it's not as crazy as it first sounds. Oilfield firefighters have used similar techniques for decades to snuff out oil-well fires.
The blast knocks the flames off the fuel source, putting out the fire. In the case of wildfires, Doig says, an explosion could knock the fire out of intensely burning trees and onto the ground, where firefighters could more easily reach it.
"It's a lot like blowing out a candle, except you get a much larger blast of air," says Doig, who works at the University of New South Wales. "We're thinking of this as being a potential way to stop a fast, uncontrolled fire in its tracks and give you a lot more time to get things under control or evacuate people that are downwind of the blaze."
It's not the first time scientists have considered using explosives in unconventional ways: In the 1960s and '70s, Operation Plowshare researched using nuclear explosions to excavate harbors and free natural gas trapped in underground rock formations. Plowshare faded away, in part, once researchers figured out the radioactive fallout from the projects would cause unwanted political fallout. Similar proposals would have used nukes to wipe out hurricanes.
Doig's research uses conventional explosives, and he conducted larger-scale experiments in January at a bomb-testing site in New Mexico. In videos made of the test, the explosion's shockwave neatly snuffs out a 3-foot-high flame shooting out of a propane burner.
"The sudden change in pressure across the shock wave, and then the impulse of the airflow behind it pushed the flame straight off the fuel source," Doig said in a statement. "As soon as the flame doesn't have access to fuel anymore, it stops burning."
Doig says more research is needed to see whether the technique would be effective in the real world, including how the explosives would be dropped on the fire, and what impact it could have on animals and structures in the blast area.
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