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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

Fire Retardants Stoke Controversy

Air Date: Week of

A red line of fire retardant creates a barrier for slow moving wildfires in Nogales, Arizona. (Photo: Dyan Bone)

The wildfires in California have been contained, but controversy over the use of fire retardants continues to blaze. Host Bruce Gellerman talks with Andy Stahl of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics and Tom Harbour from the U.S. Forest Service about the effectiveness and possible environmental effects of flame retardant.


GELLERMAN: It’s Living on Earth, I’m Bruce Gellerman. Fueled by bone-dry weather and whipped up by the Santa Ana Winds, the recent wildfires in Southern California turned 70 square miles of land to a crisp. No deaths have been reported, but more 10,000 residents were evacuated and nearly a thousand homes destroyed.

To help save property and contain the wild fires thousands of gallons of fire retarding chemicals were dropped from aircraft. But as the fires die down, the controversy over the use - and some say abuse - of fire retardants is intensifying. Andy Stahl is executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

STAHL: Well we certainly are in favor of using them more prudently. They are fertilizer, ammonium phosphate and diammonium phosphate, and if dumped in streams they are highly toxic to fish. It’s as if a farmer took a slurry of liquefied fertilizer that he was going to spray on his field and instead dumped 3,000 gallons into the stream. And that fertilizer kills fish for miles downstream. One of the more infamous drops killed 20,000 fish in Fall River near Bend, Oregon several years ago.

GELLERMAN: There’s an awful large amount of fire retardant chemicals being used, 20,000,000 gallons plus a year?

STAHL: Yes and in a high fire year as much as 40,000,000 gallons dropped from these bombers. And it is a significant financial challenge for the Forest Service because this is not cheap stuff, thousands of dollars per drop. And it’s often used for what we call political firefighting, to put on a good show for the public, but doesn’t do anything effectively in fighting the fire.

A red line of fire retardant creates a barrier for slow moving wildfires in
Nogales, Arizona. (Photo: )

GELLERMAN: Well, does the stuff work?

STAHL: The stuff works in limited applications. The retardant doesn’t put out fires. It was never designed to fight fires in residential areas. What it was designed to do is to prevent small fires from getting larger as they creep along the forest floor. And it’s pretty good at that. What it’s completely worthless at is stopping a wind-driven firestorm such as we saw in southern California in the last several days. There, the wind blows embers and burning branches for up to half a mile. The fire retardant line is only several tens of feet wide. And so in a wind-driven firestorm retardant is worthless.

GELLERMAN: Well what would you do in the case of the Santa Ana fires? I mean, we can’t just let these things blaze to the coast, can you?

STAHL: There’s also not a heck of a lot you can do to prevent it. Notice in the news what you hear is firefighters gain an advantage on fire when the wind drops, when it rains. But when the winds are blowing 70 miles an hour and the humidity is three percent, there’s nothing firefighters can do. Period.

GELLERMAN: Well if your house were in the line of a wind driven wildfire, wouldn’t you want the firefighters to use something?

STAHL: Well if my house was in the line of a wind-driven fire, I would want to make sure my house was built properly. That’s the only secure way of insuring that my house won’t burn. If it has a fire resistant roof, fire resistant siding and if the vegetation is cleared out about a hundred feet from the house, then I’ll be quite confident that my house will survive a wildfire.

GELLERMAN: Your organization is now suing the U.S. Forest Service over the use of fire retardant chemicals. What’s the suit about and what are you looking for?

A plane drops fire retardant from the smoke-filled sky. (Courtesy of Fish and Wildlife Service)

STAHL: We want to force the Forest Service to disclose the real environmental costs and benefits of firefighting. Our lawsuit is a means to change the way our society approaches fire. We have to learn how to live with fire rather than fight a war against it.

GELLERMAN: Well, Mr. Stahl, thanks, I really appreciate it.

STAHL: My pleasure.

GELLERMAN: Andy Stall is executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. It’s based in Eugene, Oregon.

Now joining me on the line is Tom Harbour. He’s the national director for Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service. And Mr. Harbour, thank you very much.

HARBOUR: Glad to be with you, Bruce.

GELLERMAN: To hear Mr. Stahl tell it, the Forest Service is poisoning our landscape in order to save it.

HARBOUR: We believe we’re putting another tool in the toolbox of our professional wildland firefighters for them to use when they deem it necessary.

GELLERMAN: Well what is appropriate in terms of these - I mean, when would you want to use a fire retardant? What kind of fire?

HARBOUR: We use retardant to help us lower the intensity of a fire that we can get in closer to, then, with those boots on the ground. We’ve seen retardant used effectively around communities under the proper conditions of not too much wind when these aircraft can be flying.

GELLERMAN: You know, Andy Stahl says that these chemicals weren’t intended to be used near, you know, communities. He also charges that they’re just PR drops, you know, just done for the benefit of showing the public that the Forest Service is doing something, even if it doesn’t work.

HARBOUR: As the leader of the wildland fire folks and the Forest Service, I’ll tell you that fire retardants can help with the ebb and flow of fire as they move. Fire retardants are especially effective because once the water evaporates from the mix they still have fire retardant qualities. We’ve used these chemicals safely for forty years and I hope we get to use them forty years into the future. We’ve got a good tool here.

GELLERMAN: Tom Harbour is the national director for Fire and Aviation Management for the U.S. Forest Service.

Mr. Harbour, thank you very much.

HARBOUR: Thank you, Bruce.



US Forest Service Office of Fire and Aviation Management

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics

California Department of Forestry and Environmental Protection


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