Fire Retardant EIS Out for Comment

Aircraft spreads retardant on Indian Gulch fire in Jefferson County. Joe Amon, The Denver Post

A while back, I had asked Andy Stahl for a description of the desired condition he hoped to achieve by the fire retardant litigation. I am still curious and I got more information from this news story from the Helena Independent Record. Now I don’t know much about the details of this controversy, but this story was very helpful at understanding the different points of view. Any feedback from blog readers on the accuracy? Kudos to Eve Byron, the writer!

The only question I have on the information in the story that does not match my personal experience is with regards to the Indian Gulch Fire (the one I refer to as “in back of my house”). That fire was not on Forest Service land and it wasn’t an FS managed fire, so I was thinking that at least the State of Colorado must use fire retardant. An internet search yielded this link to California which apparently also uses retardant. Perhaps someone in the fire biz could give a more complete view of which states do and don’t use it.

The U.S. Forest Service is proposing a few changes, but wants to continue using retardant to slow the spread of wildfires, according to a draft environmental impact statement released for public comment Friday.

Glen Stein, who put together the 370-page draft EIS, said they’re already working with individual forests where retardant is used to map areas where threatened or endangered plants, fish and animals are present and they will try to avoid those areas.

They’re also proposing to limit the use of retardant in waterways unless it’s needed for the protection of human life; previously, it also could be applied when the potential damage to natural resources outweighed the possible loss of aquatic life and when alternative fire line construction tactics aren’t available. Already, the Forest Service tries to avoid using retardant within 300 feet of waterways.

The Forest Service also said it would start to annually monitor 5 percent of fires on less than 300 acres where retardant has been applied to determine whether any adverse effects occurred, and if so, what to do in the future. In addition, they’ve laid out steps to take in case of misapplications.

“We feel this does a better job of protecting sensitive resources while allowing us to meet our obligations to protect people and property, and do so safely,” Stein said on Friday, adding that their preferred alternative now is different than what they initially proposed, based on initial public comments. “Now we’re waiting to see what the public thinks.”

The draft EIS is the result of a July 2010 decision by U.S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy, who directed the Forest Service to follow national environmental policies and prepare an EIS to outline the impacts on plants, animals and fish after dropping the retardant. The Forest Employees for Environmental Ethics had filed a lawsuit in 2008, alleging the retardant, which includes ammonia-based fertilizer, is toxic to fish and threatens rare plants.

Molloy ruled in July 2010 that it “is probable that substantial questions are raised hereas to the environmental impact of the annual dumping of millions of gallons of chemical retardant on national forests.” Last month, he ordered the federal government to pay $95,000 to FEEE for court costs and attorney’s fees.

In a press release, Forest Service Chief Tom Tidwell defended the use of the retardant, and noted that from 2000 through 2010 it was applied only on about 8 percent of wildfires on National Forest lands. In addition, during the past decade, on lands managed by the Forest Service, U.S. Department of the Interior, and the states, only one of every 5,000 retardant drops has impacted waterways.

“The use of fire retardant, in concert with firefighters on the ground, allows the Forest Service to safely protect landscapes, resources and, most importantly, people’s lives,” Tidwell said. “Research and experience demonstrate that aerially applied fire retardant, used in an appropriate manner, reduces wildfire intensity and the rate of spread, which increases the effectiveness of our fire suppression efforts on the ground.”

But Andy Stahl, FEEE executive director, argues that the Forest Service’s research in laboratories can’t be applied to real wildfire conditions, where heavy winds often created by the fire can make it rapidly spread. After a quick read of the draft EIS, Stahl said what was important to him was what the document didn’t include.

“The Forest Service makes no effort to show that fire retardant use changes the outcome of wildfires in terms of houses destroyed, lives threatened or acres burned,” Stahl said. “Tables in the draft EIS show scores of national forests use no retardant — never did — and they don’t show any different outcomes. They don’t suffer from lack of that.”

He added that while acknowledging the environmental harm, the document also doesn’t calculate any significant benefits.

“I think they’re going to be compelled to do somewhat better than this,” Stahl said. “If they’re proposing to build a dam or highway, or log a forest, there are some environmental downsides but also some kind of economic pluses. What the Forest Service has not done is told us what the pluses are when using the retardant.”

He added that state firefighting agencies, like those in Florida and Texas, don’t use retardant on wildfires and there’s no significant difference. In the West, though, he said it’s often used on fires on federal lands.

“In Florida and Texas, where forest fires are ubiquitous, retardant isn’t used because the federal government isn’t paying for it because they don’t have federal national forests,” Stahl said. “This is a federal boondoggle. State firefighting agencies without the federal treasury behind them never found retardant to be cost effective, and that the benefits outweigh the costs.”

Stein said they plan to continue to use retardant on wildfires this summer, and Tidwell will decide what course to follow after the final EIS is completed. The EIS must be completed by 2011, under Molloy’s ruling.

“We don’t know what will happen next year,” Stein said. “It depends on how this is received by the court.”

The release of the draft environmental impact statement begins a 45-day public comment period, and it can be found in this story online at helenair.com.

5 Comments

  1. There are so many factors affecting these issues. At first, I had a kneejerk reaction to Andy’s lawsuit. What kind of evil person would want to eliminate the use of fire retardant?… Now that I see the resistance of the Forest Service to convince the public that they have analyzed and fixed problems that continue to show up.

    During my second season as the Martis Peak lookout, high above Lake Tahoe and the Truckee basin, I watched as an airtanker followed an air attack plane on a practice run over a small wildfire. They swooped down, right over the fire. I watched as gained altitude and circled back around for a drop run, listening to interactions with the pilots, dispatch and the “fire boss”. The planes again swooped down on the fire but, nothing came out of the airtanker. They again circled around for another run. During the circling, at about 500 feet, two loads of retardant suddenly drops, producing pink clouds descending to earth. I watched with binoculars as the pink stuff landed in a housing subdivision east of Truckee. I reacted by foolishly calling the “fire boss”, notifying him of the drops… and where! About a minute later, dispatch calls the “fire boss”, obviously suppressing a chuckle, about some fire management issue.

    Many of us have also seen the two-toned fire folks, with liberal use of pink in Nomex fashions. Us timber folks always joked about firefighters running to get “glory juice” on their Nomex.

    What it comes down to is that we need changes in how airtankers are used. No one wants to eliminate them, altogether. There will be a ripple-effect, changing how other fire suppression resources are used. There will be less direct attack of wildfires, and more acres will be burned, and at higher intensities. Like others have said, sometimes airdrops are more for quelling public safety fears. Ineffective airdrops are expensive, and even the best of pilots cannot hit the bullseye every time. These are tough decisions to make, with potentially tragic results. If the Forest Service is thinking that the courts will side with “common sense” over law, once again, they will have to go back to the drawing board. Same for their Let-Burn programs.

  2. Sharon says,

    A while back, I had asked Andy Stahl for a description of the desired condition he hoped to achieve by the fire retardant litigation. I am still curious ….

    I wonder whether FS Chief Tidwell, or Kimbell, or Bosworth, wondered anything similar? In particular, is there ever any formal agency outreach once a lawsuit has been filed to see what really is at issue, and if some accord might be reached short of court action (if so, are there any tracks, and if there are tracks why are they not public record–or maybe the are in the public record, and I’m once-again in the dark).

    I emphasize the idea of what “really is at issue” since I believe that in many cases legal action is brought where, when, and how it can be brought in the non-level playing fields of political action. Often what is “desired” can not be directly obtained, since federal agencies can shield themselves from unwanted questions in a variety of ways.

    For example, if someone wanted to question the effectiveness of fire retardant drops (or more pointedly wanted to question them in non-grassland, non-shrubland settings), and wanted the agency to respond in other than doublespeak, how might that question be framed, and in what context?

  3. Dave- I could be wrong but once you get into lawsuit country, you enter a different world with its own players, jargon, rules and transparency. Perhaps the question should be “should we have a formal pre -litigation period where the litigants expose and discusses their reasoning and desired outcomes in a public forum”?
    The information developed could then be used by judges as part of the record. Just an idea.

    • You are correct that the world of lawsuits is a different world, but not a world apart from the world of policy-making or planning, or program development, or even projects. The worlds connect, except that in practice they often do not.

      Lawsuits do not necessarily need to end up in court. There are “settlements” with associated agreements, there are “alternative dispute resolution” mechanisms, etc. There even are, in some cases, ways to have litigants drop lawsuits and go to other procedural mechanisms for relief. But first plaintiffs have to ask deep questions that are seldom if ever asked.

      As I was thinking about this stuff this AM I thought of Noam Chomsky’s Manufacturing Consent, but only as a point of departure. In this case I thought about a long period of time in which the Forest Service, and some Administrative players, have been “manufacturing dissent.” They may or may not have known that is what they were doing, but by shunning the environmental movement (libeling them as “dirty”, “unwashed”, “unworthy” (relative to the “professional foresters”), then trying to distance themselves from attacks by claiming things (aided by “legal counsel”) like “frivolous lawsuits,” “lack of standing,” “issues are not ripe for consideration” (i.e. the shell game), they have sharpened the animosity, the focus, and the legal skills of the environmental community.

      As per the “pre-litigation period” it might be an interesting topic for conversation. If ever tried, it would have to be an open public forum, because like “settlement agreements” the ties that bind are often felt most painfully by those not in the room when agreements are struck.

  4. I also wanted to say that the agreement between Foto and Andy based on their experiences is exactly why we started this blog.. to help people from different camps appreciate their differences and similarities.

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