Forest Service Examines Fire Retardant Policy

Forest Service Examines Fire Retardant Policy

01 June 2011

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USA — A new policy for using retardant to battle wildfires may consider the habitat and species in the area being treated. But saving human life would remain the top priority.

A watchdog group of Forest Service employees is taking federal officials to task for the way they dispense fire retardants from the air while fighting wildfires, but insists it has no desire to prohibit the use of firefighting chemicals.

Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, says federal officials took “some baby steps in the right direction” with last week’s release of a new draft environmental impact statement on fire retardants.

The statement calls for better mapping of areas where endangered species might live, so firefighters can avoid dispensing retardant in those areas. Under the draft document’s preferred alternative, language that presently allows retardant to be dropped in those locations to protect human life and property would be changed to saving “life” only.

However, he criticized the government’s approach to the issue. The Forest Service, Stahl says, has never adequately explained the benefits of using retardants, as opposed to on-the-ground fire lines or other tools. Retardants are a western issue for the Forest Service, and are rarely used at all east of the Mississippi, he notes. That isn’t because of a lack of fire, he maintains, but because the bulk of Forest Service land is in the West.

Some environmental damage comes with clear-cut benefits that make it acceptable, he said—logging to construct homes, for example. Stahl said his group believes the number of incidents in which fire retardants actually get dropped too close to waterways or in critical habitat is underreported.

“The environmental harm may be worth suffering—if the stuff works,” Stahl said. “But with retardant, the Forest Service has never explained what the benefit side is. We have nothing to balance the environmental costs against. We have dead fish, damaged wildlife habitat… for what?”

The active chemical in the retardant is ammonium phosphate. Basically, it’s fertilizer, and it’s come under fire for two reasons: When it dissolves in water, ammonia is released. That’s toxic to fish and other organisms. And in regions such as the Southwest, native plants are adapted to harsh, poor soil conditions. Dump a load of fertilizer on them, and the soil composition changes. Invasive plants thrive in the newly enriched soil, while native species get choked out.

Concerned that the Forest Service was not taking the effects of retardants seriously enough in its existing environmental analysis, Stahl’s group sued. Last year, Missoula’s federal district judge, Donald Molloy, ruled in their favor and ordered the new environmental impact statement. Public comments are being taken until June 27. The Forest Service has until Dec. 31 to not only complete the paperwork but also finish its consultations with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and fisheries.

The Forest Service is working with these agencies to map the habitat of plant and animal species vulnerable to retardants, in order to avoid dropping the chemicals there. Under a proposed rule change, the retardants would not be dropped in these locations unless it was deemed necessary to protect human life.

In addition, species not yet endangered but deemed “sensitive” by Forest Service standards are also being examined—a decision requested by the agency and not required by the lawsuit. Altogether, the agency is reviewing about 400 endangered and threatened species, as well as another 3,700 sensitive ones.

Forest Service spokesman and veteran firefighter Glen Stein says his agency has used retardants effectively for 50 years. In a controlled laboratory setting, Stein says, it’s easy to prove that they work. But fighting a wildland fire involves dozens of variables—humidity, wind, temperature—and retardant isn’t always a good choice. It disperses too easily in windy conditions, for example.

And windy conditions are part of the problem. Present Forest Service policy says the primary goal of wildland firefighting is to protect human life and property. Stahl points out that most fires spread to homes via wind-blown embers. Therefore, he argues, there is no real evidence that retardants help.

He also questions the cost to taxpayers. Retardants cost more than $1 per gallon, he says.

“Only the federal Forest Service has a big enough budget to bother buying fire retardant,” Stahl said. “State and local agencies haven’t found that it’s cost-effective.” More than half of all retardant dumped in the U.S. is dispensed in California. That state does have a firefighting agency that also uses retardant.

“It’s sort of like going into your local store, and buying a bottle of water, and using it to fight fires,” Stahl said.

But the entire point of using retardants is to avoid using water in the first place. In the 1950s, firefighters who tried to drop water from planes quickly learned that water dissipated and dried too quickly to be very useful in stopping forest fires, Stein said. Retardants were developed to fix that problem.

“What we’ve done over the years is develop something that keeps the liquid together,” Stein said. “It also has a component, fertilizer salts, that helps reduce the fire intensity. It reduces the intensity of the fire and makes it easier to put the fire out.”

Stein stressed that retardants simply offer another option for firefighters and are not used indiscriminately. Even the Forest Service can’t afford to, he says. Only 18 air tankers for dropping retardant are available nationwide, and the competition for using them is fierce.

The agency does want public input on the issue, Stein says. An online session for all interested parties will be held on June 16.

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