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More Wildfires, More Retardant? Some Question Its Efficacy

The U.S. Forest Service has used fire retardant for six decades, including about 14 million more gallons in 2021 than the 10-year average. Some experts wonder if retardant is effective, and safe, enough for continued use.

An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Mosquito fire
An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Mosquito fire as smoke fills the sky above Foresthill on Wednesday, Sept. 7, 2022.
(Paul Kitagaki Jr./The Sacramento Bee/TNS)
(TNS) — Greg Bolin has watched the colorful spray of fire retardant fall from airplanes over the canyon near his home. He has also had wildfires come close to his back door.

The mayor of Paradise, Calif., lost his home in the 2018 Camp fire, the deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history. Even today, only about 20 percent of Paradise is rebuilt after more than 19,000 structures, including 11,000 homes, burned to the ground.

No fire retardant was dropped near Bolin’s house during the Camp fire. The fire was too hot, too fast.

“My wife said, ‘So why aren’t we staying?’ I said, ‘Because this is a bad one,’” Bolin said. “We got out — lost our home, lost our rentals, lost everything.”

Though they didn’t have time to drop retardant in Paradise, Bolin said drops did prevent the fire from destroying Chico, Durham and Oroville.

The United States Forest Service, which fights wildfires that ignite on federal lands, has used fire retardants in the West for six decades. Over the past decade, the agency has dropped more retardants as fire seasons have gotten longer and more devastating, Forest Service data shows. The agency dropped almost 53 million gallons on federal, state and private land in 2021 compared to a 10-year annual average of about 39 million gallons.

Some studies on aerial retardants conducted by a branch of the U.S. Department of Agriculture shows that they can slow the spread of a fire. But the conditions in which they are dropped have a huge impact on its efficacy; high winds, weather and the type of terrain take significant tolls on whether the retardant can properly impede a fire’s progress.

Now at least one group is questioning if they work, and if the benefits of using them outweigh the costs of chemicals accidentally contaminating water.

Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), said that regardless of retardants, “Paradise, California, would still be burned to the ground.”

“Retardant was available. It just doesn’t work when the wind is blowing and the fuels are dry and the houses are tinder boxes,” Stahl said. “In fact, retardant doesn’t work in precisely those situations where you would really like it to work.”

Should the Forest Service Curb Fire Retardant Use?

Stahl’s organization is suing the Forest Service in a federal court in Montana to ensure that it drops retardants, all containing certain fertilizers and salts, in compliance with the Clean Water Act, which regulates water pollution. In waterways, those chemicals can lead to massive fish die offs and algae growths that stifle aquatic life.

The Forest Service is now working on getting that Clean Water Act permit that would let them drop retardants close to waterways. Officials expect the permit process will be complete in less than three years.

However, FSEEE wants them to double the no-drop buffer zone to 600 feet from navigable waters until that permit and state permits are in place.

That 600-foot buffer is a condition that the Forest Service has already agreed to follow in areas the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service flagged as as sensitive. But lawyers for the Forest Service assert in court documents that any additional change would require them to stop using retardants altogether.

Tom Stokesberry III, the fire public affairs specialist for the Forest Service, wrote in an email that because litigation is pending, it would be inappropriate to comment.

He pointed to research that shows less than 1 percent of retardant drops impacted American waterways over the last 10 years. Of that, 80 percent were unintentional and 20 percent were based on an exception: The Forest Service can drop retardant in those areas when there’s a threat to human life or public safety and retardant could reasonably be foreseen to alleviate that threat.

This is the third lawsuit FSEEE, a coalition of current and former Forest Service employees, has filed against the agency over compliance with laws meant to protect the environment

The lawsuit led a bipartisan group of California lawmakers to introduce a bill that would preserve a Clean Water Act exemption for federal, state, local and tribal firefighting agencies to use fire retardant to fight wildfires.

Fear for the loss of life and habitats compelled the town of Paradise, Butte County and organizations like the California Forestry Association to intervene in the lawsuit to combat the FSEEE’s claims; the judge allowed them to share insights in a brief and in court. If lawsuits like these spur split seconds of fear over dropping a retardant, Bolin said, “We’re going to lose our forests. We’re going to lose everything.”

Matt Dias, the president and CEO of the California Forestry Association, said the collaboration between Cal Fire and the Forest Service proved effective last year, a lighter fire season than in previous years. He said that intervening in the suit was about continuing the smooth teamwork with retardant across state and federal partners.

“Both the state and federal partners have reporting standards of application of aerial retardants to avoid impacts on the Waters of the Nation or Waters of the State. We encourage compliance with those regulations and policies without a doubt,” Dias said.

What Fire Retardant Ingredients Concern Experts?

The ingredients that the FSEEE is most concerned with are the ones not publicly listed.

The USDA lists retardants as 85 percent water, 10 percent fertilizers and 5 percent “minor ingredients” such as colorant like iron oxide to make the drops visible.

Aerial retardants used by the Forest Service contain inorganic fertilizers made of ammonium phosphates or other inorganic salts made of magnesium chloride. .

But some of the ingredients are not publicly broken down as the Forest Service gets retardant from private companies: Perimeter Solutions and, more recently, Fortress.

Stahl said he is worried that heavy metals like cadmium could be in the retardant, based on the cadmium levels in the mine where the phosphate ore for the retardant is collected.

Perimeter Solutions lists some additives and concentrations as a trade secret, according to product safety sheets, and did not respond to multiple requests for comment.

When asked about cadmium, the Forest Service directed The Sacramento Bee to the Department of Justice, given the ongoing lawsuit. The DOJ did not respond to a request for comment.

Stahl is hopeful the permit under the Clean Water Act would force the Forest Service to release more information on ingredients.

In certain water conditions, heavy metals like cadmium can turn into a toxic contaminant that builds up in the fish populations, said Andrew L. Rypel, the director of the Center for Watershed Sciences at the University of California, Davis.

Ammonium phosphates, he said, act as a fertilizer to algae. When algae overgrows and bacteria eats its decay, it disrupts the balance of the aquatic ecosystem and can lead to a fish kill

Rypel, who was not familiar with the lawsuit, said that studies of wildfire effects show material can rapidly travel downstream. “I would not be surprised if those chemicals did kind of make their way down quite a long ways,” he said.

Prioritizing fish habitat over human life should not be a debate, Paradise Mayor Bolin said: “It’s very hurtful for people up here to hear that fish are more important than our lives and our home.”

What Affects Fire Retardant Effectiveness?

Dias said that the “test of balance” between the environmental impacts of retardants versus letting a fire burn uncontrolled lean toward the retardants. He explained that burned landscapes can also degrade waterways.

“The landscapes are so large and are so barren, and the watercourses are so terribly exposed,” Dias said, “the erosion that can occur in these watercourses subsequent to wildfires.”

Still, drops aren’t perfect. One risk is grass height. In a year where there is high grass, said Scott Upton, retired Northern Region Chief for Cal Fire, they need to drop more retardant to penetrate the ground. Otherwise, the fire can sneak under it.

Given heavy rain and snowfall this year, there is fear for high grass, but lingering dampness could lower risk of fires.

Upton said that there were reporting standards for dropping near water for Cal Fire.

Cal Fire and the Forest Service work together to suppress and prevent wildfires, as much of California’s forests are federally owned.

Cal Fire too gets its retardant from Perimeter Solutions. Cal Fire lists that the retardant it uses is 88 percent water. The rest is mostly ammonium phosphate with gum thickeners, flow conditioner and red coloring. Cal Fire is not part of the suit.

When it works, it can slow a fire enough so that firefighters — who are pulled in many directions in a heavy season — can get there before a lot more damage is done, said Doug Teeter, a Butte County supervisor who grew up in Paradise and worked on recovery efforts after the Camp fire.

“Without the retardant, we’re losing so much habitat and species that it’s a small price,” Teeter said. “It’s a small collateral damage compared to not having that tool.”

What are Other Efforts to Fight Fires?

The Forest Service has long been criticized for responding to fires too slowly and letting land it oversees get overgrown, creating fuel for fires. Gov. Gavin Newsom called out the Forest Service’s policy as too lackluster and passive in response to fires in 2021 following the Tamarack fire that primarily burned in Alpine County. USDA Secretary Tom Vilsack promised more aid in a trip to California shortly after.

The Department of Interior and USDA, which oversees the Forest Service, announced a new 10-year strategy in January 2022 to clean and treat its forests that are close to communities and cause significant damage if aflame. The agency is working with local, state, national and tribal leaders to set priorities in wildfire suppression, prevention and response.

It came on the back of the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, which infused $3 billion into the Forest Service to restore land and reduce hazardous fuels for fires.

Bolin and Teeter, like many others in California, are skeptical of the Forest Service. “The Forest Service has a ton of money now,” Teeter said. “We’ll see if they can really get stuff done out of the planning stage.”

©2023 McClatchy Washington Bureau. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC.
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