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Santa Fe inventor tries to get momentum for “air mover” he says can help firefighters

In World
February 25, 2024

Feb. 24—In a demonstration video, Santa Fe inventor Wayne Darnell’s high-velocity mobile “air mover” looks like a giant fan, one capable of pushing the raging fire in front of it back — and even extinguishing it.

Imagine how easy it would be to get rid of a horde of mosquitoes in your path with this contraption.

Darnell obviously has much higher hopes for the air mover, an instrument that could give firefighters another tool to conduct prescribed burns and push fires back onto burnt soil where they are more likely to extinguish quicker.

Darnell has patented the machine — it’s patent number 11446687 — and is applying for a National Science Foundation grant to get funding to build another, better model with the goal of drawing more attention to it and giving it a better chance of being adopted in the field.

Paraphrasing the late inventor Thomas Edison’s quote genius is 1% inspiration and 99% perspiration, Darnell said with a laugh, “So far I’m in the perspiring point, and if there’s any inspiration, it’s already passed for the most part. I’m in the long slog of trying to get this thing out into the world.”

But he’s done pretty good so far in terms of making an idea he had about six years back while lighting a match come to fruition with a nearly one-ton, 11-foot by 7-foot mobile air mover.

It was the simple act of blowing the match out that got the retired nuclear power plant start-up engineer thinking about a large version of an air blower that could put out fires.

He said he visited several local fire stations to talk to firefighters about the idea, many of whom supported the concept.

He said he didn’t exactly draw out any plans. Rather, after doing some online research to find an air blowing company, he “stumbled upon” Panther Airboats in Florida and contacted them about building a wheeled version of a propeller-driven airboat.

The company’s owner, Jan Bell, put Darnell in touch with contractor Fred Hamm to do the job. In an interview, Hamm said he listened to Darnell’s pitch and then he and a buddy he called in to help “drew something like a stick man and built it.”

“It’s not that complicated,” Hamm added with a laugh. “It’s an airboat without a boat — facing backwards.”

Among other features, the air mover has horizontal rudders that direct the air up and down and vertical rudders that control the airflow left and right.

In April, Eric Staller, director of natural resources at Tall Timbers Research Station and Land Conservancy, gave the vehicle a test run near Tallahassee, Fla. Darnell videotaped the test and Staller’s comments on it.

Staller said in the video he likes seeing this type of “ingenuity” in tackling fires and believes the machine could play a role in prescribed burns, putting out fires and helping move fires “around towns” that are being threatened.

He, like others who have seen the demonstration video, suggested Darnell do more to address poor visibility for the driver because of smoke and consider adding a turntable device so the stationary fan could swivel and turn as needed.

Darnell said he has sent email queries and a link to the video to firefighting entities around the state and elsewhere but as of yet has received no responses of note.

“There’s reasons I can see for resistance,” he said. “Tradition is really strong. You’re comfortable with what you are doing even if it doesn’t always work. And the gravity of the situation would give them pause to consider bringing something new into the field.”

Darnell, who put his own money into funding the initial prototype, said he estimates it would cost $100,000 to $125,000 to build one of them. He said that’s likely much cheaper than the cost of a new firetruck. (Many online sources say those trucks can cost up to $1 million.)

He wants the new model to focus on the prescribed burn aspect of the machine, saying it can conduct them quicker and more efficiently if deployed correctly.

But he also wants to play up the potential for the air mover to “poke a hole” in a flame front to build an escape route for firefighters or other people trapped behind the lines.

The Ohio native, who served in the U.S. Navy in the 1970s and moved to Santa Fe in 2003, said ultimately he wants to contribute to the environment in an era when “just about everything is drying up, heating up and burning up.”

“There’s nothing fancy about this, nothing,” he said of his patent. “It’s not complex, it’s not sophisticated, it’s not computer driven.

“It’s just common sense.”

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