USA — The search for better ways to fight forest fires gets a public listening session in Missoula on Thursday.
The U.S. Forest Service was forced to rethink its use of ammonium-based aerial fire retardant last year after a judge ruled it ignored the material’s toxic effects on fish and plants. Thursday’s gathering is part of a nationwide review of an environmental impact statement on fire retardant use.
The draft EIS was released May 13. It is now in a 45-day comment period. Region 1 Forester Leslie Weldon will lead the Thursday session, which will be held at the University of Montana’s University Center in Room 332 from 9 a.m. to noon.
“The use of fire retardant, in concert with firefighters on the ground, allows the Forest Service to safely protect landscapes, resources and, most importantly, people’s lives,” Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell said in an email statement. “Research and experience demonstrate that aerially applied fire retardant, used in an appropriate manner, reduces wildfire intensity and the rate of spread, which increases the effectiveness of our fire suppression efforts on the ground.”
But U.S. District Judge Don Molloy found the agency violated the National Environmental Policy Act when it released a 2008 environmental assessment saying the retardant had no significant impact on fish and aquatic life. That ran counter to U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service reports that found the retardants harm 45 endangered or threatened fish, plant, insect, mussel and amphibian species and their habitats. The retardants have also been linked to the spread of noxious weeds, which further damage critical habitat.
The Forest Service used aerially applied fire retardant on 8.5 percent of the fires on national forest lands in the last decade, according to agency reports. It also claims only one of every 5,000 retardant drops has affected a waterway.
However, the Forest Service was initially sued in 2003 after a retardant drop in Oregon killed 20,000 fish in a stream. Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics brought both that case and the subsequent 2008 case that resulted in Molloy’s 2010 ruling. Molloy gave the Forest Service until the end of 2011 to prepare a more rigorous environmental review of the practice.