Firefighters decimate steelhead population, says environmental groups

24 December 2009

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USA — An environmental action group is preparing to sue local fire agencies for allegedly killing some 50 of 500 steelhead trout during last May’s Jesusita Fire.
Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) says the fish were killed by toxic fire retardant dropped from aircraft. Once the retardant mixes with water it produces ammonia. Ammonia was responsible for the deaths, according to the organization.

FSEEE said it intends to sue the California Department of Forestry and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department, and filed a 60-day notice with the U.S. Department of Commerce. FSEEE is required to wait two months to file a suit under the Endangered Species Act. This gives the U.S Department of Commerce time to decide if it will enforce a retardant restriction on its own.

FSEEE executive director Andy Stahl said, “The culture of firefighting is, it is a war, that there is collateral damage. We make bad decisions in war.” The Department of Forestry said it could not comment on the fish deaths because of the pending legal action. However, a source at the top levels of Santa Barbara county firefighting did speak exclusively with the Valley Journal on the condition of anonymity. The source said firefighting is a war but added that once a management team is in place the harm to the ecosystem is greatly decreased. The anonymous contact added that the development of fire retardant has come a long way, rendering it safer than it was in the past.

In addition, the source said that protecting the land is not only one part of firefighters’ job, it essentially is their job. Fire agencies use “light hand on the land” tactics to mitigate environmental losses. They said all firefighting is harmful to the land but so is fire.

However, Stahl thinks the assumption that fire damage is worse than the environmental impact caused by fighting it, is incorrect. He said he believes the use of retardant is not only harmful but illegal.

Stahl said the suit stems from the Forest Service attempts to be exempt from the Endangered Species Act. FSEEE filed a previous suit against the U.S. Forest Service and won. Since then, Stahl said, the Forest Service has made a “half-hearted effort to comply.”

The anonymous source disagreed and emphasized the amount of planning before retardant is dropped. “I feel that no matter what agency it is, they have improved in protecting natural resources.” Before the planes start dropping retardant, the fire managers have identified riparian zones.

The source said fire agencies always have an ecologist on the ground, trying to minimize environmental impacts at every fire. However, that is not always effective and some retardant can seep into rivers. Stahl and the anonymous source agreed on how retardant should be used and that it was best used to buy time for firefighters on the ground. But Stahl said it should only be used on small fires. The source, on the other hand, said there was a definite need for aircraft to aid firefighters on many types of fires.

While Stahl doesn’t advocate completely banning fire retardant, he says it should never be used in areas with endangered species. He says fire agencies have “no excuse for using toxic chemicals.” Stahl said the simple solution to retardant use is to only use water in sensitive areas. Fire retardant is not used east of the Mississippi River, Stahl pointed out. When asked about the potential environmental impacts of taking water from streams and rivers, Stahl responded: “You have to be sensible about where you get the water.” He added that one of the best sources for water in the county is the Pacific Ocean.

But using water, especially water from the ocean, could be ineffective. First, some firefighting aircraft, such as the CL-215 “Super Scooper” are not able to carry saltwater because of its corrosiveness. Also seawater can be toxic to the environment. The salt can decrease the fertility of the soil on which it is dropped. Seawater can also alter stream environments and cause the same fish deaths FSEEE is trying to prevent.

The second problem is the heat of the fire. Because fire retardant is essentially fertilizer, it does not evaporate. Water is most effective when directed to the base of a fire. When dropped from above, much of the water will not reach the ground. In wild-land fires, the flames can get so high that water will be almost completely ineffective, according to the source. Water is also ineffective at providing a firebreak, the anonymous contact said, because it soaks into the ground and evaporates. “Retardant gives the firefighters a chance to get around (the fire); this keeps them safe and adds to the probability of extinguishing the fire,” said the source.

Stahl also took issue with what he called the “political show” surrounding retardant dropping. “California is addicted to retardant and there is no evidence that it lessens home loss.” Stahl also said the state accounts for a majority of the nation’s retardant use. He said the airpower used by fire agencies showed residents firefighters were doing everything they can to protect property.

There is a political side, the anonymous source said: Fire agencies “want to show their colors.” They pointed out complaints were voiced against fire agencies responding to the Jesusita Fire, once the air campaign was called off. However, the source viewed this more as an economic problem than an environmental one. “We used to put fires out for a lot less money than we are now.” Private contractors were cited as one of the reasons for rising cost. Contracting an S-64 Skycrane helicopter costs the Forest Service $8,000 per hour.

The best solution to preventing environmental damage and lowering cost is to fund more prescribed burns, according to the source. Prescribed burns make fires less severe, use less aircraft and allow the land to recover faster.

Such burns, however, always exceed air quality standards. The tension between environmental and fire agencies remains. Both sides say they are trying to preserve the ecosystems and people living in fire areas, though their methods continue to clash. The lawsuit is the third FSEEE has filed regarding the use of fire retardant. If the Department of Commerce does decide to enforce a restriction on fire retardant against local agencies, the case will not go forward.

The majority of the dead Steelhead Trout were found in Maria Ygnacio Creek. FSEE is a nonprofit unaffiliated with the Forest Service, though some FSEEE members are current and retired Forest Service employees.

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