Irene Rhodes, founder and CEO of Consumer Fire Products, united her backgrounds in engineering and firefighting to create a system that automatically sprays a biodegradable protective foam onto a house when a wildfire is nearby. Her Eugene, Oregon-based company has grown 1,740 percent in three years by beating back the fires that are a year-round threat in some western states.

--As told to Victoria Finkle

I come from a family of engineers, and so I just naturally went into electromechanical engineering. I designed underwater sonar equipment, mining equipment, ionization machines--and I was an engineering designer on the space shuttle and the International Space Station.

But I became disenchanted at being inside, at a drawing board, all day long. I really loved the outdoors--I would water ski and backpack, go mountain climbing and hiking. It was really difficult for me to stay on the engineering track. So I became a tree climber for a company that did private landscaping work and also contracted for government agencies. I would climb 150-foot fir trees and bring them down. You see, I'm a woman in a man's world with all this engineering, land­scaping, and tree work. I have no idea why I was built to do those things, but I enjoyed everything I did.

I became a seasonal firefighter with a private company. I had truck-driving experience, so they had me driving a big water truck. For two to three years, I fought fires and continued to climb trees in the off-season. Then I transitioned into landscaping.

When I started firefighting, seeing homes burn just broke my heart. So I went back to engineering mode. I was driving the first compressed-air foam truck for this firefighting company, and I was a specialist with the foam--it's used for both suppressing of and pretreating for fires. If they were going to burn 1,000 acres in the woods, they would send us in there to spray foam 100 feet next to a river or stream--the foam would protect it from burning. You don't want to burn down to the stream, because the fire hurts the fish and the surrounding ecosystem. I realized that was the answer to the home-protection problem. The foam is biodegradable, and it's safe for animals, plants, and humans. We just needed to invent a piece of equipment that could automatically distribute it around houses.

After I started my family, I stopped chasing fires and started a landscaping and irri­gation company. For the next 10 years, I supported my family while working on the R&D proc­ess. I went to business school, where I won a competition that gave me the seed money to start Consumer Fire Products.

Designing the foamsafe system was complex, but not difficult. Some colleagues thought I should go to market before it was fully automatic, but I refused; I didn't want people to have to stay at their homes to operate it. As a former firefighter, I never want anyone to stay behind in a wildfire. People, property, environment, in that order--public safety is always the priority.

Everyone now is concerned about wildfires, and both homeowners and insurance companies are showing greatly increased interest in what we do. We've protected thousands of homes that might have otherwise burned. It all came together naturally. Without my realizing it, all the different places I had been in life were leading me up to this moment.