New fire prevention technology on display among clouds of

Steve Conboy has bet a lot more on the fire-inhibiting technology he’s created than the $50 bill he tossed into the middle of some burning newspaper for the benefit of a dozen onlookers Thursday at his company’s Wildfire Depot in Rohnert Park.

The Carlsbad inventor and business owner has spent 18 years developing and perfecting a nontoxic substance he says is the future of fire prevention in both the built and natural environment.

Conboy says plant-based CitroTech not only prevents sparks from igniting otherwise flammable materials, it can be used to douse hot spots more efficiently than water and help ensure prescribed burns don’t escape.

That may mean investing in a home sprinkler defense system, spraying vegetation around the edges of a controlled burn or around the base of a threatened tree — say, a 2,000-year-old sequoia.

The idea is that advancing flames will stop when they reach even the driest fuel treated with his formula — the same way a paper map and the $50 bill, survived during Thursday’s demonstration.

“We don’t want to move from this beautiful state,” Conboy said in an interview. “We just need to do something about this wildfire risk.”

To prove he’s onto a solution, Conboy invited interested folk to visit the Mighty Fire Breaker outlet showroom and training location at Commerce Boulevard and Golf Course Drive on Thursday to watch his crew burn — and not burn — various materials to demonstrate the efficacy of the company’s product.

There were the pine shavings, some of which burned to black and some of which didn’t, even though gasoline had been applied; the burning newspaper, which failed to ignite the paper map and Conboy’s cash; the flaming straw around the base of a makeshift tree that was left untouched; and a long pile of dry brush that produced large flames, dense smoke and intense heat, except from the area that had been treated with CitroTech.

The crew also demonstrated a remotely operated spray system mounted on the building that, in this case, offered two levels of reach and power, controlled by a phone.

Observers included representatives from Cal Fire, including the deputy director of technology, a wildfire mitigation specialist, several contractors, including one who already has been installing Mighty Fire Breaker’s “Locked-and-Loaded” spray defense on remodels in the Sierra foothills and elsewhere, and a variety of Rohnert Park firefighters, on-hand in case of a problem.

Fire Marshal Jim Thompson was among those who allowed that he was “fairly impressed” with what he had seen of the technology.

Two other bystanders, retirees and friends, decided to come “to see things burn” after seeing a notice about the event.

“It seems to work,” Cotati resident Greg Wetterman said. “But I don’t know how it would work in a raging forest fire.”

Conboy say he’s inspired to help save life and property, but also to allow property owners to maintain insurance at a time many companies are pulling coverage in high risk areas.

But he’s also trying to do it in a safe manner.

“We do not need another cancer-causing product,” he said.

His interest in fire prevention stems from his work in engineered wood products, which he said “were failing in fires and killing firefighters.”

So he started investigating potential new treatments for wood construction that would resist burning and diminish the smoke that is such a killer in catastrophic fires.

It took him to Malaysia, Germany, Switzerland to consult scientists there, as well as experimentation with environmentally safe chemistry. The result was a biodegradable formulation based on food grade, raw materials derived primarily from corn, as well as things like potassium citrate and xanthan gum, for thickening.

It’s mixed with water, as a delivery system, and manufactured in Ohio (where there’s plenty of water) and can be sprayed through a variety of systems targeting different scales of application.

It does not contain ammonium, phosphates or other chemicals common to fire retardants, and has been undergoing accreditation through the Environmental Protection Agency and other organizations so it can bear labels attesting to its safety, Conboy said.

“The reason our chemistry works different than foams and gels is foams and gels dry out and make a mess, and they’re good for about three hours,” he said. “Ours will defend a month later, bone dry, and doesn’t make a mess.”

Conboy said the material can actually be sprayed once a season (if it doesn’t rain) and still will inhibit fire. Any longer would require polymer ingredients that would harm plant and animal life.

Conboy said he’s inspired to preserve both life and property, but also to work with the insurance industry to find a way for folks to reduce their risk by using his technology so they can remain insured.

“What we want is to defend houses so the insurance companies can insure people,” he said.

Conboy said he’s been training contractors to install the spray systems after doing about 50 himself and is just starting to advertise the technology.

He said the owner of a 2,500-square-foot home can probably count on spending about $10,000 to have the sprinkler system installed, as well as all the other home hardening that usually goes with it, such as fireproofing vents and decking. If that level of home hardening already is achieved, the Locked-and-Loaded system is likely closer to $5,000 to $7,500.

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 707-521-5249 or [email protected] On Twitter @MaryCallahanB.

Technology