Retardant’s Effectiveness Comes Under Fire

Retardant’s Effectiveness Comes Under Fire

09 November 2011

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USA — A nearly decade-long battle over the use of fire retardant now centers on the effectiveness of the wildfire suppressant.

An air tanker drops retardant as the Emerald Hills Fire crosses Interstate 90 in this aerial view. – Photo courtesy of Larry Mayer, Aerial Photographics

The group responsible for initially suing the U.S. Forest Service over the chemical’s environmental impact believes the agency’s latest assessment raises doubts about whether retardant is even proven useful, an opinion local fire officials and the leader of the assessment disagree with.

The Forest Service released its final environmental impact statement on Oct. 21, which examined the lasting effects of fire retardant and determined a stricter approach should be taken when using it. The new approach, if signed into effect by Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell by Dec. 31, would slightly increase the amount of land and water off limits to retardant drops unless human life or public safety is threatened. The preferred approach outlined in the EIS would provide direction and new maps to fire officials across the country.

The plan would better protect waterways, threatened, endangered or sensitive species and cultural resources, according to the Forest Service.

But managing retardant’s environmental impact is not the only issue needing to be addressed, according to the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a nonprofit watchdog group based in Eugene, Ore.

“The first question to ask is, well where is it effective?” FSEEE Director Andy Stahl said. “Because if it’s not an effective fire fighting tool then you don’t really need to approach the safety uses and environmental impacts, because you simply don’t use it.”

The FSEEE initially sued after local fisheries were damaged by retardant, highlighting an incident where 20,000 fish were killed. The FSEEE won its first lawsuit in 2006 after U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy said the agency must show it is in accordance with the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. Molloy required the agency work with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration Fisheries Service to determine the impact on the environment and wildlife. A second lawsuit was filed in 2008, claiming the Forest Service was in violation of the Endangered Species Act.

Since then, the Forest Service re-addressed the claims raised in the lawsuits with a staff of roughly 30 people led by Glen Stein, an applied fire ecologist for the Forest Service and the team leader for the EIS project.

Stein describes the EIS as “very comprehensive,” pointing to the collaborative effort with the Fish and Wildlife Service and NOAA Fisheries, along with communications with local agencies around the country.

Whether fire retardant is effective was not the focus of the assessment, Stein said, although field data has shown it is.

“We have a lot of evidence (that retardant is effective),” Stein said. “But that’s not what this was about. What this was about is we’re using chemicals, we’re dumping them out of an airplane and if we’re going to continue doing that, what are the effects we’re going to have on various aspects of the environment.”

The Associated Press reported that there have been roughly 36,000 retardant drops in the U.S. since 2000. The drops cost roughly $24 million to $36 million a year, according to the AP.

The Forest Service has had a policy in place since 2000 that deters retardant drops within 300 feet of water sources. Currently three exceptions can be made, but under the new approach only a threat to human life could be a valid exception.

In 2010, there were 16 accidental drops and 51 exceptions made, according to the AP. In 2009 there were 22 accidental drops and two exceptions.

Stein said his team looked beyond the impact of retardant on water species and took into consideration threatened and endangered species, like grizzly bears. They found no direct harm is done, Stein said, and protecting water sources remains the main concern.

Steve Frye, the area operations manager for the Northwest Land Office of the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation in Kalispell, has fought fires since 1965. He considers retardant to be a valuable tool for fire suppression. Just last summer, he said he witnessed its effectiveness on two large incidents, one in Southwest U.S. and one in the Northwest.

At the Flathead National Forest office in Kalispell, assistant forest fire management officer Mike Goicoechea agrees with Frye, saying fire retardant has proven its need in his experience.

“There’s definitely a time and place that it’s appropriate,” he said.

Fire retardant has shown it is most effective in lighter fuels, which means it is not used as often in the heavy timber areas of Northwest Montana, Goicoechea said.

But, “if there’s a fire running away in a valley, we’ll try to put (retardant) between the fire and the values at risk,” he said.

Stahl remains steadfast in his disapproval of fire retardant. He believes the chemical is used haphazardly and only illuminates a larger problem — the way wildfires are handled.

“That’s been our theme throughout this, using fire retardant as an educating tool to illustrate what’s wrong with the way society approaches waging war against nature,” he said.

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