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Gel provides temporary fire barricade

GOLD HILL - The best way to demonstrate a product is to test it on yourself, believes firefighter Mike Eychner.

After testing a plywood sheet and window pane to prove the worth of a new fire-blocking gel called Barricade, Eychner prepared for the ultimate test.

He coated his hand with the gel and held a small propane torch up to his flesh. Not a hair was singed.

"I'm really impressed," said Don Tippit, a rural Grants Pass resident who watched the demonstration.

Eychner is an independent firefighter who now distributes Barricade, a gel that can be sprayed on a house to protect it from a wildfire for 15 to 36 hours.

Eychner tested the product last summer on homes threatened by fires in Idaho and Montana. He helped save historic sites, cabins and a 25,000-gallon propane tank at the world's largest cobalt mine.

"We saved everything we sprayed it on," Eychner said.

Fear of fire this summer is motivating local property owners to try it, as well. Many say this could be the most significant fire year since 1987, when more than 100,000 acres burned in Southern Oregon and thousands of firefighters flew in from around the country to help control the blazes.

"I'm really worried about fire season this year," said Tippit, who has lived 24 years in a two-story home that bumps up against federal forest land. He's cleared brush around his home and might even buy a water truck to protect his place this summer.

"This is one of the highest fire danger years we've ever had and that's why I'm buying Barricade."

Barricade was developed in 1998 by a Florida firefighter who noticed that Pampers diapers don't burn. He took the same super-absorbent polymer found in disposable diapers and put it into liquid form and packaged it in a 11/4-gallon bucket that can be hooked up to a garden hose and nozzle.

When sprayed on a structure, the coating provides temporary protection .

"For the first time, a homeowner can actually do something to save his house," said inventor John Bartlett. Despite Barricade sales last year reaching $1 million, Bartlett still works for the Palm Beach County Fire Department in Florida. Barricade customers include the Los Angeles City Fire Department, which carries it on its trucks, and Florida Power and Light, which lost about 800 power poles during 1998 Florida fires.

The fire-blocking gel is not harmful to the environment, Bartlett said. It's made of potassium-based polymers and refined mineral oil.

Neither does the coating hurt paint or wood on a house if it's washed off after three or four days. Montana homes where Barricade was kept on for a month or more experienced water damage, a softening of the wood grain, Bartlett said.

Barricade also protects glass, which is how most wildfires enter a rural home. During a recent demonstration in Gold Hill, Eychner held a blow torch heated to 3,500 degrees Fahrenheit to panes of gel-coated glass. (That's much hotter and more intense than a wildfire, which burns at about 1,400 to 2,000 degrees Fahrenheit, noted James Webb, a Rogue River Fire District firefighter.)

No flames could be seen and the glass didn't shatter.

But Eychner's sales pitch comes with a disclaimer - don't use Barricade as a last-minute, home-saving effort. When authorities warn that an evacuation is near, coat the house and then leave.

"This is not a fix-all," Eychner said. "It's another tool in the box."

Reach reporter Melissa Martin at 776-4497, or e-mail