Aerial fire retardant drops face opposition from environmental protection groups

Posted: Oct 25, 2014

Recently the United States Forest Service (USFS) announced it would be releasing a draft environmental impact statement (DEIS) reexamining the potential harmful effects of aerial application of fire retardant on fragile ecosystems.

The DEIS being released is in response to a 2010 court order from the U.S. District Court in Montana. The court order called for the USFS to investigate claims made by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), that the fire retardant drops violated the National Environmental Policy Act and the Endangered Species Act. The main claim brought against the USFS was that the chemical retardant was making its way into waterways, damaging the wildlife and contaminating the water.

The problem with the lawsuit brought by FSEEE is that they are fighting a practice that has helped to save entire national parks from raging wildfires. Although the process of dropping the chemical compound is by no means perfect, the discontinuation of the fire-fighting technique could have disastrous consequences. This potential damage is not limited to structures or human life, but in fact the forest itself could be at risk from fire damage.

Aerial drops of fire retardant consist of specially-designed planes, which fly low to the flames and drop a compound specially-formulated to put out a wildfire as quickly as possible. In September 2010, a wildfire ripped through the Fourmile Canyon area of Boulder, Colorado. The fire tore across more than 6,400 acres and caused over $77 million in damage. Although these numbers are staggering, it is frightening to consider what might have been if planes dropping retardant had not been called to assist in the fight. Similar situations in California wildfires have resulted in the need for these aerial drops.

It is always best to try and improve the way we handle environmental disasters and to limit the amount of damage done not only from the actual cause, but also to mitigate the damage done by trying to recover. However, to simply halt the use of aerial fire retardant drops could result in more damage to our environment from the quickly-spreading flames, than from the chemical’s effect on wildlife.

According to the U.S. Department of the Interior, only one of every 5000 drops of fire retardant has affected waterways. This seems like an acceptable risk, especially considering that fire retardant drops are not used in most firefights. In fact, fire retardant drops were only used in 8.5 percent of firefights in the years 2000 through 2010.

Currently, the protocol for aerial drops is that it is acceptable to drop retardant near waterways, closer than the buffer zone of 300 feet, only when there is an overwhelming threat to natural resources. This guideline seems to be intentionally vague, so that the firefighters can use their discretion of impending risk. In the DEIS, the USFS has proposed to limit the use of retardant near waterways unless it is needed for the protection of human life. This further narrows limitations of when a drop can take place by using the threat to human life as the only exception to the rule.

What the USFS is grappling with is how to safeguard what it’s mandated to protect while being forced to put some of it at risk. On one hand the waterways and wildlife within national forests are the main priority. However, forest fires are responsible for hundreds of thousands of acres of lost wildlife habitat, flooding, and landslides. The proposed changes in the DEIS try to effectively mitigate the damage done by both retardant and wildfire.

Although it should always be the public’s goal to limit our environmental impact, we need to examine the reality of what it could mean to stop the aerial drops of retardant. Until we find another way, which protects firefighters on the ground, while also preventing the rapid spread of forest fires, we need not to rule out these firefighting techniques completely. There should be a call for a safer chemical, but not at the expense of discontinuing an effective practice before we find a better way.

The USFS is accepting comments on the proposed changes in the DEIS online until June 27, and a complete and final EIS should be available in December, 2011.

Read more news about the proposed changes online

-Anthony Santos, University of Colorado Law Student

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