In Fighting Wildfires, Concerns About Chemicals

In Fighting Wildfires, Concerns About Chemicals

15 November 2008

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USA — The red clouds of fire retardant dropped onto the flames near Santa Barbara, Calif., on Friday were a welcome sight for owners of the hillside homes there.

“Critical,” Bill Payne, deputy chief of aviation for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said of the retardant’s role in helping to steer the fire away from populated areas, including the exclusive enclave of Montecito. “I mean, this is almost downtown Santa Barbara we’re talking about. We’re trying to keep it away from the town. We’re trying to herd it back into the forest.”

Retardant, whether released by small planes that sweep low through smoky canyons or by DC-10s in 12,000-gallon bursts, has become an increasingly common tool for fighting wildfires. Yet while many residents praise — and even demand — the use of retardant to protect their homes and neighborhoods, the potent mix of chemicals in the most common type can leave scars of its own, hurting watersheds and the fish and other animals that live in them.

Increasing concerns over retardant are prompting opposition to its use in certain situations and further stirring the debate in the West over how much is too much when it comes to fighting wildfires.

“It’s fairly well known that it’s toxic to aquatic organisms, to fish,” said Sue Husari, the fire management officer for the Pacific West region of theNational Park Service. “In a lot of cases, we prefer to limit its use, but it’s definitely one of the tools we use.”

The use of the most common type of retardant, a fertilizer-like, phosphate-based compound, can vary by state or by who oversees the land where a fire is spreading. Among federal agencies, the Park Service is relatively cautious with retardant because part of its mission is to protect natural and cultural resources for public use. The State of California, however, has the largest aviation fire operation of any state and uses retardant aggressively not only to contain fires — retardant’s intended purpose — but also to try to extinguish them before they reach populated areas.

TheForest Service, which oversees the largest share of the nation’s wildfire-fighting operations, has a laboratory devoted to testing retardant produced by private companies. In a sign of how contentious the issue has become, the agency is being sued in federal court in Montana by a group that says retardant threatens endangered species, including salmon, a claim the agency rejects.

“We have the same environmental concerns as anybody,” said Tory Henderson, branch chief for equipment and chemicals at the Forest Service. “We always are looking for a more environmentally friendly product.”

Airplanes and helicopters have long worked in concert with ground crews to fight big wildfires. When used effectively, retardant draws a chemical line in the landscape that can keep a fire from spreading while ground crews work to get it under control. But it can also be little more than a red streak of false reassurance, coating hillsides and the occasional house in what critics say is too often an ineffective, expensive public relations effort to appease the increasingly dense populations living in wildfire-prone areas.

Government budgets for fighting wildfires have soared in recent years, reflecting a more assertive approach that critics say places too much emphasis on putting out fires that occur naturally in arid parts of the West.

“It’s just bombs away,” said Timothy Ingalsbee, a former wildland firefighter who now heads Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology.

Still, many people who fight wildfires say that some of the resources that people are concerned will be damaged by retardant could potentially be lost to fire. Even in national parks, where some officials have called off the use of retardant to protect historic structures or wildlife from the chemicals, others have requested more retardant. And in more developed areas, particularly in California, the loudest critics of fire policy are those who want more use of retardant, not less, fire officials say.

“The second we don’t, they’re calling us: ‘Where are you?’ ” said Mr. Payne, of the state fire department. Speaking of the environmental threats of retardant, he said, “It’s the people whose houses are not on fire that are concerned about it.”

In the federal lawsuit in Montana, the Forest Service is being sued by a group of current and former employees and others who are demanding that the agency conduct a comprehensive environmental study of the impact of retardant under the Endangered Species Act. The suit cites a 2002 retardant drop on a river in central Oregon that killed 20,000 fish.

Current federal policy encourages pilots not to drop retardant within 300 feet of a body of water, but it allows for exceptions if flying conditions require it or if lives or property are in danger. By 2011, according to officials with the Forest Service in Montana, the most common type of retardant will have lower amounts of ammonia and will therefore be less harmful to fish and aquatic environments. Private companies have also used other chemicals to develop gels and foams that are popular among some firefighting agencies, though retardant is used by most.

The Forest Service says that the number of cases it has found where retardant affected waterways is so small — 14 out of thousands of retardant drops since 2000 — that mitigation measures already in place suffice.

In January, the judge in the Montana case, Donald W. Molloy, threatened to jail the head of the Forest Service, Mark Rey, and to halt its use of retardant because it did not respond to court orders on time. After a hearing the next month, Judge Molloy decided against jailing Mr. Rey and allowed the use of retardant to continue. But Judge Molloy let the case proceed, and last month the plaintiffs asked him to make a decision in the case.

“The chance of some stream being hit by retardant is virtually certain, and so, of course, you have to consider the consequences,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of the group that brought the suit, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “It’s already happened 14 times.”

In California in September, retardant-dropping planes were called in when the 3,700-acre Hidden Fire rushed toward a ridge above a complex of caves in Sequoia National Park. Then a cave expert and others in the park warned that the retardant could seep into underground streams that were home to rare spiders and isopods. The drops were stopped, and the Park Service approved a study of whether the cave streams were affected.

“Fire is not new,” said Joel Despain, the cave expert. “We know that these animals and these caves must have been through fires in the past, because there were fires here in the 1920s. But the retardant is something new. That’s something these animals have not seen before.”

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