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FIREWATCH: Fighting fire with 'ping pong balls'

Firefighters have many different ways to fight wildfires in our region. It might surprise many people that one of their most important tools can fit in the palm of your hand.

Posted: Jul 11, 2019 6:46 PM

GRANTS PASS, Ore. -- Firefighters have many different ways to fight wildfires in our region. It might surprise many people that one of their most important tools can fit in the palm of your hand. 

The use of incendiary ping pong balls has evolved since it started in the 1980's in the U.S.

Matthew Schutty, Supervisory Forestry Technician for the Siskiyou Rappell Crew, said the balls are a great tool to ignite areas on the ground that are harder for people to get to.

The ball itself is filled with potassium permanganate and is injected with antifreeze, which causes a reaction that lights the ball on fire within about 45 seconds. 

The balls are used primarily for prescribed burns, but they are also used for fire suppression. Crews drop them from helicopters or drones to create back burns, which helps control the fire. 

Schutty said the balls are often dropped in places that hand crews cannot get to, which is a major safety benefit for the men and women on the ground. However, there is a trade-off.

The mission is riskier than a regular flight.

"You're spending a lot of time 50 to 100 feet right above the trees and if something goes wrong, the results are generally catastrophic," Schutty said. 

While the tool has been used to fight fires for nearly 30 years, the technology has evolved a lot these past few years, allowing the balls to be dropped from drones. 

Last year, crews used the new development on the Klondike and Taylor Creek Fires. 

Schutty said the drone technology may be relatively new, but it's taking off quickly.

"I think it'll be one of the areas where drones actually take away some of the helicopter work," Schutty said. 

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