What is the red substance dropped by air tankers on raging wildfires?

In addition to the supertankers and other specialized aircrafts arriving here from all over the world, the fires of the last few days also require advanced substances that are crucial for quenching the flames. So what is the Israeli angle?

The fires raging around the country over the last few days threaten to destroy homes, trees and a great deal of property. To combat them, air tankers take off and distribute a special red substance, easily discernable in photos and videos from the fire sites.

They work like this: Fire retardants are manufactured mainly in the US, Canada, France, Spain, and Germany. Their chief purpose is not to put out the fire, but rather prevent it from spreading in the first critical stages of the extinguishing process.

The fire retardant marks ‘lines of fire’ to delineate the fire, making it easier for the firefighters to contain its spread and focus their efforts on a specific demarcated area. The substance is originally transparent but is dyed, often using reddish minerals, so as to enable firefighters to visually identify the borderlines of the fire zone. The fire retardant changes the way cellulose breaks down, turning flammable materials such as wood and grass into substances that do not catch fire easily.

The product, categorized chemically as a type of phosphoric acid, is considered safe, effective as well as environmentally friendly and is approved for use by the Forest Service of the US Department of Agriculture, among other institutions. In addition, the substance is approved for use by the Federal Aviation Administration and has all the required authorizations from the aircraft manufacturers. Since fire retardants undergo such rigorous inspection by the regulatory agencies worldwide, the industry includes relatively few manufacturers.

Fire retardants are essential for the environment, with an effective response to fires receiving high priority in many countries. The main long-term impact of forest fires, in addition to the damage to the natural landscape, is the fact that they turn much of the trees’ biomass into carbon dioxide – a greenhouse gas that contributes to global warming. According to the NIFC (National Interagency Fire Center), 105,534 forest fires occur by average every year in the US alone, destroying about 500,000 acres of forest.

But where does Israel factor in? ICL is the global leader in manufacturing fire retardants, supplying the product to many firefighting organizations worldwide. ICL’s list of products in this field includes products for protection against fires, as well as substances for treating hazards made of wood and paper, and a range of fire retardants for preventing the spread of wildfires. During the 2010 wildfire in the Carmel Forest, ICL donated 500 tons of fire retardants from its warehouses in Europe to Israel’s firefighting forces. These were loaded onto a supertanker, as part of the effort to contain the huge fire. Last September, ICL was awarded a $6.2 million contract from the US Air Force– a major consumer of substances for combating fires—to supply 418,000 gallons of fire retardants.

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