USA — A massive new map collection should keep firefighting air tankers and the fire retardant they drop from hurting fish and other sensitive plants and animals, U.S. Forest Service officials said on Wednesday.
“We have between 12,000 and 15,000 maps produced, with all the quads for all the national forests,” said Glen Stein, who led the Forest Service environmental impact statement team studying ways to improve fire retardant use.
The maps show streams and other water features, as well as ground spots where endangered or sensitive species live. Fire dispatchers and pilots should have the maps available to decide if they can drop retardant in a fire zone without poisoning fish or damaging ground habitat.
Fire retardant is essentially ammonium-based fertilizer, which kills fish and aquatic insects and promotes the spread of noxious weeds. A misplaced retardant drop in 2003 killed 20,000 fish in a single stream. In 2008, the Forest Service reported 65 drops where retardant may have hurt a plant or animal protected by the federal Endangered Species Act.
In 2010, U.S. District Judge Don Molloy of Missoula ruled the Forest Service erred in a 2008 environmental assessment that found retardant had no significant impact on fish or aquatic life. He gave the agency until the end of 2011 to redo that study.
Stein led a conference call on Wednesday to discuss the draft document. In addition to producing the maps, the Forest Service also plans to have firefighters do more careful evaluation of retardant drops and survey at least 5 percent of fires that burn less than 300 acres for misplaced drops.
Those small fires are the ones most likely for misplaced drops to get made or go unnoticed, Stein said. Larger fires typically have more people paying greater attention to air tanker action, so mistakes there are usually properly reported and studied.
But the draft assessment also backs away from an earlier statement asserting the value of retardant drops as a firefighting tool.
“It’s still very difficult to prove if fire retardant is going to be effective in particular situations before you apply it,” Stein said. “We know it’s effective in the lab. I’ve been a firefighter for 37 years and I know it can be effective.”
That jumped out at Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, the group that originally sued the Forest Service over the misplaced drops.
“In the draft EIS, they claimed fire retardant improved initial attack success, decreased fire size and saved homes,” Stahl said. “Now the Forest Service has retreated from those assertions and says it doesn’t have data or studies to support that, so it’s relying on anecdotal evidence.”
Stein said without aerial retardant drops, ground firefighters might have to work farther from the fire perimeter, avoid direct contact with burn areas or even fall back to the closest natural barrier in their assault. That could result in fires getting bigger than they would without retardant drops, he said.
The draft EIS also notes that fire retardant chemistry has improved, changing greatly in the last five or six years to be less toxic to wildlife. Stein said the report didn’t propose further changes to the retardant formulation.
Aerial retardant isn’t used on 95 percent of fires on national forests. The new maps put nearly 30 percent of the Forest Service land into aerial buffer zones to protect waterways, and another 1 percent of sensitive ground. The buffer zones protect more than 300 plants and animals on the Endangered Species List and another 3,700 species considered sensitive to retardant effects.
The new EIS is not subject to appeals, although Stein said the public can still contact him or other Forest Service officials over the next 30 days before a record of decision is signed. The new maps and procedures should be in use when the 2012 fire season starts next February.