Fire fight: Forest Service explores chemical retardant hazards

by Judith Lewis Mernit

What's  worse for the forest: wildfires or the chemicals dropped from planes to stop them? The U.S. Forest Service tackles this question in its 370-page study of fire-retardants' ecological impacts, released May 13. It's a dilemma: Retardants kill fish, contaminate aquifers and fertilize noxious weeds, but unchecked fires destroy homes, wreck some habitats, ruin views and, worst of all, kill people.

"Over the past 50 years, aerially delivered retardant has become one of the most important tactical tools for wildland firefighters," the report notes. Eliminating it would "likely have consequences" when "critical natural resources, watersheds, or private property" are at risk.

Exactly what those consequences might be, however, remains a matter of debate. "The Forest Service has yet to provide any evidence that fire retardant is effective at protecting homes or lives, or even limiting the number of acres burned," says Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, whose lawsuit prompted the study.

Stahl's organization first sued in 2004, alleging that the Forest Service ignored the National Environmental Policy Act when determining how and where to use retardants. The law required the agency to consult with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service about the chemicals' effects on protected species and publish an environmental analysis open to public comments. The Forest Service finally did that in 2007, but its environmental assessment merely concluded that proper use of fire retardants had "no significant impact" on ecosystems -- despite Fish and Wildlife's findings that they harm scores of protected plants and animals.

So the group sued again, and last summer, U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy in Missoula, Mont., gave the Forest Service until the end of the year to complete a new study -- this one with "binding restrictions" to enforce decade-old guidelines about avoiding sensitive areas.

The new study has those restrictions. It recommends rules to help pilots  avoid dropping chemicals within 300 feet of water. It calls for closer monitoring to detect spills and misuse of retardant, and urges consultation with wildlife agencies when mishaps occur. And it includes protection for cultural resources, something missing from previous guidance documents.

It also lists a dizzying array of impacts: One chemical, Phos-Chek D75, a blend of ammonia salts and thickeners, killed scores of endangered steelhead trout during a May 2009 fire near Santa Barbara, Calif.; in Australia, three consecutive years of its use turned a shrub ecosystem to grassland after 22 years.

What the study doesn't do, however, is make an airtight case for why the Forest Service uses retardant in the first place -- as much as $36 million worth annually, almost all of it in Western states and fully half of it in California. Chemical fire retardants do slow a fire's progress and help firefighters construct fire lines. But they don't keep wind-driven embers from igniting cedar-shake roofs where communities border wilderness, which is arguably the best reason to extinguish fires. Jack Cohen, a Forest Service scientist in Missoula, Mont., has found that homes can survive even high-intensity crown fires if they're constructed of the right materials and surrounded by a 200-foot buffer zone. Fire suppression has little to do with it.

Glen Stein, the Forest Service team leader who directed the study, says that proving the chemicals' worth wasn't really the point. "Our objective was to assess the environmental effects. To say, 'In this landscape and in this soil, this is what the effects are, and this is how you reduce them.' It's not, 'Should we use them or not?' It's, 'If we use them, here's what might happen. And here's what might happen if we don't.' " The decision, he admits, "is very subjective."

Even if fire retardants do save homes, the study allows readers to infer that the chemicals, as part of an overall suppression ethic, might on the whole be making things worse. Since 1999, 242 fires in the U.S. have grown past 50,000 acres, double the number of large fires that happened in the previous two decades. Their size owes less to hotter weather and drought, the authors say, than to a history of suppressing fire in fire-evolved landscapes, bringing fuel loads to a "tipping point" where recent climate variations matter.

"This is not just about fire retardant," says Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the Eugene, Ore.-based Fire Fighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology. "It's about the whole 'fire industrial complex.' " Firefighting is big business. He notes that Bush-appointee Mark Rey, the former timber lobbyist who oversaw national forest policy until 2008, risked going to jail for delaying the fire-retardant study. "That's the intensity of (the Forest Service's) refusal to do a scientific analysis and allow public input on fire suppression."

Public input is open through June 27, however, on at least this "narrow sliver of fire-suppression tactics," as Ingalsbee calls it. Stahl considers that progress. "Six or seven years ago, nobody thought we'd get this far," he says. "Changing the way fires are fought is like attacking mom, apple pie and Chevrolet," he adds. "All we can do is keep pulling on the string."

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