a team of researchers at case western reserve university have found a way to protect homes from the blaze of a forest fire by wrapping them in a huge foil blanket. after a series of tests demonstrating the viability of this method, researchers hope their findings could help to prevent the damage caused by natural disasters such as wildfires across california.

‘the whole-house fire blanket is a viable method of protection against fires at the wildland-urban interface,’ says lead study author fumiaki takahashi, a professor at case western reserve university, cleveland, ohio, USA, who teamed up with the NASA glenn research center, US forest service, new jersey forest fire service, and cuyahoga community college for this study.

takahashi was approached by people living and working in fire-risk areas who wanted to know if viable products existed commercially. this prompted his research and an initial investigation, which revealed that whole-structure fire blankets were already available.

‘I thought about a means to reduce wildland fire damage and found a US patent ‘conflagration-retardative curtain’ i.e., a fire blanket, issued during world war two,’ he says. ‘in addition, the US forest service firefighters managed to save a historic forest cabin by wrapping it with their fire shelter materials,’ takahashi reports.

although anecdotal reports existed, there was a lack of scientific evidence to back up the ability of fire blankets to protect buildings. using a research grant from the US department of homeland security, takahashi and his team sought to rectify this through a series of experiments.

they tested the ability of different blanket materials to shield structures against fires. the team started with wooden birdhouses exposed to a fire in a room, then door-sized wooden panels on a hillside exposed to a grass fire and finally a wooden shed subjected to a forest fire deliberately started by the fire service in an area where controlled burns are carried out routinely.

‘the fire exposure tests determined how well the fire blankets protected various wooden structures, from a birdhouse in a burning room to a full-size shed in a real forest fire. we tested four types of fabric materials: aramid, fiberglass, amorphous silica, and pre-oxidized carbon, each with and without an aluminum surface.’

‘in addition, we conducted laboratory experiments under controlled heat exposure and measured the heat-insulation capabilities of these materials against direct flame contact or radiation heat.’

the best-performing blankets were fabrics made of fibreglass or amorphous silica laminated with heat-reflecting aluminium foil. they found that the material was strong enough to shield an isolated building from a short wildfire attack, providing up to 10 minutes of protection, but that technological advancement was needed to develop a blanket suitable for extreme scenarios.

‘fire blanket protection will be significant to those living and fighting fires at the wildland-urban interface and presents entrepreneurs and investors with business opportunities,’ takahashi concluded. ‘the implication of the present findings is that the technical community, the general public, and the fire service must work together to take a step-by-step approach toward the successful application of this technology.’

researching body: case western reserve universitycollaborators: NASA glenn research center, US forest service, new jersey forest fire service, cuyahoga community collegelead author: fumi takahashipaper: frontiers in mechanical engineering, doi: 10.3389/fmech.2019.00060

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