Fire retardant ruling issued

By Katy Nesbitt, The Observer June 13, 2012 09:58 am

Chemical slurry used to douse wildfires can’t be dropped within 300 feet of waterways

The use of fire retardant, one of the U.S. Forest Service’s most effective firefighting tools, is now limited due to a court battle that lasted more than eight years.

Concerns with waterways and threatened and endangered species prompted Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics to file a lawsuit against the agency, claiming it was in violation of two federal environmental laws. 

A ruling by Judge Donald Malloy, signed in December 2011, prohibits retardant use within 300 feet of all waterways unless there is a direct risk of wildfire to human life. The new rule also requires avoidance of areas around threatened and endangered plants.

The Forest Service has been using fire retardant chemicals since the 1950s. In recent decades, the focus has been on improving the chemical mix to minimize the potential of adverse impacts while maintaining or improving their effectiveness.

Andy Stahl, director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, said that in the 1990s, 20,000 fish were killed in an errant retardant drop near a fish hatchery outside of Sisters.

In 2000, the Forest Service conducted its own review. The outcome was that tanker pilots were required to avoid using retardant within 300 feet of any body of water except when life or property were threatened, where it was impossible to build fire line, or when the potential damage to natural resources outweighed the possible loss of aquatic life, said Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones.

In 2003, Stahl’s environmental group filed a lawsuit against the Forest Service maintaining that the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act required the Forest Service to analyze the effects from fire retardant.

On Sept. 30, 2005, a federal court in Montana held that the Forest Service violated both.

The Forest Service issued an Environmental Assessment in October 2007 and in February 2008 it released a decision that said retardant caused no significant impact.

A year later, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed another lawsuit.

This time, the group sued not only the Forest Service, but also the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service, agencies that the Forest Service had consulted for their assessment.

In December, the Forest Service’s answer to the suit was approved and the agency will be allowed to use retardant during this year’s fire season.

Jones said, “The main purpose of retardant use is to reduce a fire’s intensity and slow its spread to make it safer for ground troops. Safety is No. 1.”

In rugged or remote areas, like the Hells Canyon Recreation Area, it is extremely difficult and dangerous to solely use ground crews. Suppression of last summer’s Cactus Mountain Fire was largely due to the use of single engine air tankers, small planes that navigate well in canyon country.

Jones said the agency doesn’t use tankers to directly suppress fires, but in conjunction with engines, helicopters, and crews.

“It is important to understand retardant was used on only 8.5 percent of fires managed over the last 10 years,” said Jones.

Fire retardant is used, on average, on 4,700 of the 193 million acres managed by the Forest Service each year and only one out of 5,000 drops impacted waterways, said Jones.

Jones said the forests are now required to map waterways and habitat for threatened and endangered species.

“We’ve strengthened our monitoring to better determine if retardant is entering avoidance areas,” said Jones.

The agency will also review 5 percent of fires less than 300 acres in size to determine if the fires are being fought in compliance with the new rule.

Stahl said he isn’t sure if the new rule goes far enough.

“The key issue that continues to concern us is, is retardant even an effective firefighting tool? We think the Forest Service should have answered that threshold question first,” said Stahl.

Jones said extensive research has proven that after retardant is dropped it retains its effectiveness for several days to a week, while water evaporates quickly. Most of the research has been conducted in labs in a controlled environment, but has been coupled with anecdotal evidence from incident commanders on the ground.

Stahl said he believes ground crews are more effective than retardant and having four firefighters on an engine is better than three, though most fire trucks only seat three crew members.

Smoke jumpers, heli-rapellers and elite ground crews called “hot shots” are sometimes deployed in steep rugged country, but it is not always safe to do so.

Jones said, “We believe retardant is an important tool to ensure firefighter and public safety. When we get a fire in some of those remote areas they are going to get hotter and bigger and cause even more damage to the habitats and watersheds we are trying to protect.”

Forest fire season has erupted in the Southwest and by July fires will be a concern in the Northwest and Intermountain regions.

Bret Ruby, Wallowa-Whitman National Forest fire staff officer, said the reality is there won’t be much change in fire suppression tactics.

Ruby said in the past retardant planes sometimes used waterways to anchor a fire line if there wasn’t another good alternative — that is no longer allowed. The other major difference, he said, is protection of property or resource damage is no longer an exemption to the 300-foot buffer rule.

However, Ruby said getting retardant into water is extremely rare.

“In my 33 years of experience I have never knowingly run retardant into live water,” said Ruby.

Many of the drainages in Hells Canyon have water only during storm run-off, but in areas with the potential of risking habitat for salmon, steelhead, and bull trout, those areas will be avoided. Ruby said there only about 250 stream miles across Oregon and Washington that fit that category.

As for threatened and endangered plants, there are just a few sites on the Wallowa-Whitman and those areas average a half acre or smaller, said Ruby.