For a few thousand dollars you can add an extra layer of wild fire protection to your home if you are willing to spray it with monoammonium phosphate, a fertilizer found in fire retardants.
With offices in 11 western states, Denver-based Western States Fire Protection Co. says it's installed 80 of the systems in homes in the Sisters, OR area in recent months for costs ranging from $4,000 for manual systems to $7,000 for automatic systems. In both cases, that's the company's estimated costs for those installations in a 3,000-square-foot home.
The basic manual system includes a 120 gallon fire retardant tank, about the size of a large water heater, installed in the HVAC, garage or storage area. A spray gun, 100-foot hose and hose reel are supplied to apply the retardant manually.
A more elaborate, automated system, which works similar to produce sprayers in supermarkets, includes a system of small nozzles affixed to the eaves of a house. The system can be triggered on site or remotely by telephone to spray the house with 120-315 gallons of fire retardant.
The systems are powered by compressed inert gas and don't require running water or electricity to operate.
While monoammonium phosphate is one of the same chemicals (along with diammonium sulphate, diammonium phosphate, gum thickeners and preservatives to prevent spoilage) used in fire retardants dropped from fire fighting tanker planes, the variety designed for home use does not come with the signature iron oxide coloring agent fire fighters use to mark where the so-called "red rain" fire retardants fall.
"Protection lasts for up to two weeks (and can be water hosed off). It's not like foam or gel that evaporates. It's like having an aerial bomber on call," says Shad Lewis, a company spokesman.
During a wild fire, fire retardants are also commonly applied by ground crews to combustible objects and structures -- including homes and businesses -- in the line of fire, according to Arizona Cooperative Center.
Heidi Valetkevitch, a spokeswoman for the U.S. Department of Agriculture's Forest Service says the department neither endorses nor discourages home use of fire retardants and has no official statement about Western States' home system. However, when homeowners have asked about using fire retardant foams, the official word is not to rely solely upon any one fire safety technique.
"We encourage people to be fire wise, which means following steps to take to better protect your home if you are in wild fire areas," Valetkevitch said, pointing to the Firewise website.
The Firewise website was created by the National Wildfire Coordinating Group, a consortium of wild land fire agencies that includes the USDA Forest Service, the Department of Interior, the National Association of State Foresters, the U.S. Fire Administration and the National Fire Protection Association.
The consortium recommends, in general, creating a survivable perimeter of cleared space and less flammable vegetation and materials around homes and using fire resistant building materials, especially on the roof, among other measures.
"Firewise takes no position on the use of fire-retardant foam. It does caution homeowners not to rely solely on foam because the homeowner must be at home at the time of the fire in order to apply the substance," according to a Firewise question-and-answer document.
While Western States calls monoammonium phosphate "environmentally friendly" and manufacturers consider the product to have only "low toxicity," it presents hazards with eye contact, prolonged skin contact and with inhalation at high levels.
Monoammonium phosphate can cause tearing and redness of the eyes, mucous membrane irritation of the nose and throat and, if ingested, nausea, vomiting and gastrointestinal irritation, documents reveal.
Though not officially named in the study, monoammonium phosphate is in the same class of fertilizers recently considered potentially harmful to developing embryos, according to "Low-dose Agrochemicals and Lawn Care Pesticides Induce Developmental Toxicity in Murine Preimplantation Embryos" released this month by Marshfield Clinic Research Foundation (MCRF) in Marshfield, WI, a system of 40 patient care and research and education facilities in Wisconsin.
The study recommends that women trying to conceive avoid exposure to such products. Others should also follow use guidelines and use protective gear including gloves, masks and other items to reduce direct contact.