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.