So far this fire season, air tankers called to suppress wildfires have been dropping the fire retardants (the mix is called LC95A) at a record pace. As of Friday, more than 401,450 gallons had been dropped on Colorado forests this year, including 320,553 gallons on the lightning-sparked High Park wildfire west of Fort Collins, according to Forest Service records.
As it burns along the Cache la Poudre River — designated a Wild and Scenic River by the Forest Service — the High Park fire could overlap habitat for several species of sensitive fish.
Massive fish kills have been documented after fires were put out in northwestern states. A legal challenge by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics compelled an environmental impact study. Federal biologists concluded that fire retardants alone will not cause extinctions. But the lawsuit led to issuance of the rules this year to minimize harm.
Laye said pilots and ground crews working west of Fort Collins are complying with the rules.
Forest Service fire managers this week acknowledged concerns about toxic fire retardants degrading habitat and watersheds.
Yet the agency also relies increasingly on slurry bombers to protect houses and firefighters from potentially catastrophic wildfires, Forest Service spokesman Steve Segin said.
“Many wildfires burn in remote, rugged areas, and the application of fire retardant can slow the spread of a fire until ground forces can reach the area and begin construction of a fireline,” Segin said. “You can put it on homes. It works better on the ground. It slows the advance of a fire so that ground crews can get in there.”
Firefighters reaching mountain houses also spray chemical foams and wrap smaller structures with “fire shelter” material designed to repel flames. If there are ponds nearby, water pumps are set up to douse flames.
Some homeowners have rigged sprinkler systems. Firefighters also often haul away firewood and trim surrounding trees, rushing to create “defensible spaces.”
The federal government push to make more air tankers available to suppress western wildfires is likely to mean more use of fire-retardant chemicals.
Federal data show that, since 2007, air tankers have dropped an average of 486,385 gallons of fire retardant a year while suppressing wildfires in Colorado, where drought and overly dense forests favor large wildfires.
The Forest Service has been using retardant since the 1950s. These chemicals don’t douse flames as water does. Instead, the retardants cool and coat fuels, depleting fire of oxygen and slowing combustion as retardant salts change how fuels burn. Air tankers target houses and power grids.
This week, fire commanders loaded fire retardants into helicopters, which normally drop up to 900 gallons of water. A layer of retardant can slow fire for about two hours.
However, it was helicopters dropping water on flare-ups this week that saved two homes in the thick of the High Park fire, Segin said. “Like a military operation, it’s a combination of ground and air power coming together at a single point to suppress the fire.”
The maps designating sensitive terrain around Colorado apparently prioritize habitat for greenback cutthroats and the butterflies that live in riparian corridors — two species deemed most vulnerable to the fire-retardant chemicals.
Federal biologists would welcome development of better chemical mixes that could be less harmful and also meet firefighters’ needs, Laye said. “You obviously could use water anytime you would like.”
Here’s my favorite equine interest story.
Note from Sharon: I invite you to browse the Denver Post site and check the coverage. As I’ve said before, I bet fire policy seems different if you are in a part of the country that experiences it. It’s interesting to consider if there would be a difference if this was coverage by the NY Times or LA Times or Washington Post, and if local people there were breathing the smoke and having bad air days (to be sure, that does happen in LA, but national policy is not made there). At church today, there were prayers for the firefighters and evacuees but also the folks who are having trouble breathing in Fort Collins. I guess what I’m trying to convey is that my work world only vaguely interfaces with the people I deal with outside of work (when are campgrounds open) but fire here is as omnipresent as the air we breath. That makes reactions to policies as visceral as (we often debate here) cerebral.
On another topic, no one seems to be saying that aerial tactics are “immoral”; in fact, the concern is quite the opposite- that we don’t have enough capacity for this fire season.
Finally, I see a pattern in “environment” reporting- some technology (solar panels, fire retardant) has environmental impacts (as do all technologies, and pretty much all human and non-human actions), so people are interviewed who point out the problems. One wonders whether any technology would have an appropriate level of impact based on the values of some. Further, I think it’s interesting that we seem to have articles discussing these impacts at different frequencies for different technologies. For example, having read may pieces recently about cool new technologies in health care, I seldom see a companion piece on the environmental effects. It’s something to perhaps become more aware of.