AZ & NM Wildfires Rage as Forest Service Takes Heat Over Policies

AZ & NM Wildfires Rage as Forest Service Takes Heat Over Policies

26 May 2011

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USA — The U.S. Forest Service is reviewing environmental concerns over aerial-dropped fire retardant while its use continues on growing wildfires in the west.

Though the public comment period for a draft environmental impact statement concerning use of chemical retardants on wildfires is currently underway through the end of June, the U.S. Forest Service is continuing its use.

The next public hearing is scheduled for Thursday, May 26, 2011, in Missoula, Montana, with more planned for California, Arizona and Washington State.

The draft Environmental Impact Statement (EIS), now in a 45-day public comment period, is the result of a 2010 District Court ruling forcing the Forest Service to comply with national environmental laws. That ruling directed the Forest Service to scientifically outline the environmental impact of dropping the chemical fire retardants on plants, animals and fish in national forests by a December 2011 deadline.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service continues to use the bright red fire retardant on Arizona’s 47,280-acre Horseshoe Two fire in the Coronado National Forest and on the 86,680-acre Miller fire in New Mexico’s Gila National Forest.

And the southwest fire season has just begun.

Tom Tidwell, head of the U.S. Forest Service, has defended the use of the fire retardant, noting it has only been used on about 8.5 percent of National Forest wildfires in the last decade. The Forest Service also avoids using fire retardants within 300 feet of streams.

“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,” said Tidwell.

Retardants Mostly for the West

While wildfires have struck Florida and Texas recently, fire retardants – or “slurry” – are not used because those states don’t have federal national forests and state firefighting agencies without those federal funds don’t find the retardant to be cost effective.

But in the southwest region of Arizona and New Mexico, where 11 national forests and 3 national grasslands encompass 22.3 million acres, chemical retardants are often used.

According to the Forest Service, aerially-applied fire retardant “reduces wildfire intensity and rate of spread,” decreasing risks to firefighters and enabling them to construct fire lines safely.

“In many situations, using retardant to fight fires is the most effective and efficient method of assisting firefighters in protecting people, resources, private property, and facilities; sometimes it is the only tool available,” states the Forest Service website.

Court Demands New Study into Fire Retardant

In October 2007, the Forest Service issued an environmental assessment finding of no significant environmental impact of fire retardants on fish or aquatic life and issued its “Guidelines for Aerial Delivery of Retardant or Foam near Waterways.”

But Eugene-based Forest Employees for Environmental Ethics (FEEE) filed suit in 2008, alleging the ammonia-based fire retardant were toxic to fish and threatens rare plants. The group cited U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service studies indicating the retardants were harmful to 45 endangered or threatened species of fish, plants, insects, and amphibians.

FEEE had initially sued the Forest Service in 2003 after a retardant drop in Oregon killed 20,000 fish.

On July 27, 2010, the United States District Court for the District of Montana issued a 79-page opinion in favor of FEEE that invalidated the Forest Service’s guidelines. U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy ruled that it “is probable that substantial questions are raised hereas to the environmental impact of the annual dumping of millions of gallons of chemical retardant on national forests.”

Judge Molly directed the Forest Service to issue a new environmental assessment no later than December 31, 2011.

Just last month, the court ordered the federal government to pay $95,000 to FEEE for court and attorney’s costs.
Retardant Chemicals Secret

The 370-page draft EIS that the Forest Service has prepared is now making the rounds to public hearing through June 27, 2011. But knowing exactly what the fire retardant chemicals are can get blurred since some performance additives are considered “trade secrets” by the manufacturers, according to the Forest Service.

The ammonium-based wildfire chemical retardants as a group account for nearly all chemical retardants used in controlling forest and range fires today, according to the Forest Service. The most common type of retardants are phosphate and sulfate-based solutions, such as the popular Phos-Chek brand. The actual “mix” can vary by state or by which agency oversees the land where the wildfire is burning.

Some of the main components of Phos-Chek include ammonium polyphosphate, di-ammonium sulfate, mono-ammonium phosphate, guar gum, as well as trade secret additives.

These fire retardants are also colored red so aircrews can see where the chemicals have already been dropped. In many cases, this is a “fugitive” coloring agent that is red when dispersed, but later fades to an earth-tone to blend in with the environment.
Forest Service Science Questioned

The public hearings on the environmental impact of these fire retardants come on the heals of a contentious end to the 90-day public comment period on the Forest Service’s new rules for protecting water and wildlife on the 193 million acres of national forest lands under the 1976 National Forest Management Act.

That comment period ended on May 16, 2011, after the Forest Service received more than 100,000 public comments – some less than flattering. Critics, including the Pew Environment Group, Defenders of Wildlife and former Clinton administration forest officials, say the proposed management plan ignores science and gives regional forest supervisors too much discretion concerning water, habitat and endangered species decisions.

The Forest Service expects to finalize those new forest management rules by the end of 2010.

Meanwhile, the agency will continue to host several more fire retardant community hearings on June 7th in Santa Barbara, CA; June 9th in Wenatchee, WA; June 15th in Tucson, AZ., as well as a June 16th National Community Listening Session via webinar.

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