Forest Service plans for continued use of fire retardant

Greenwire has this article today (paywall, I think) and the topic may eventually be covered elsewhere. FWIW, I suggest that retardant may reduce the effects of wildfire in aquatic species. Andy will probably counter that retardant is not effective, but I’ve seen it work very well to slow fires and give firefighters a safer place to build lines.

Forest Service plans for continued use of fire retardant

The Forest Service says it could seek broad permission from EPA to use aerial retardant that can endanger aquatic wildlife.

In a reply to a lawsuit filed by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, the Forest Service stood by its previously stated position that the agency doesn’t violate the Clean Water Act by applying fire retardant without a National Pollution Discharge Elimination System permit from EPA, although the spray can be lethal to aquatic wildlife if it gets into streams and rivers.

As an alternative, however, the Forest Service has told FSEEE it plans to seek a “general permit” from EPA, which would allow for the continued application of retardant in multiple settings without the more extensive reviews the organization argues are needed.

General permits can be based on certain categories of activities across wide geographic areas and don’t require the project-by-project reviews involved in individual permits under the NPDES system, according to EPA.

Andy Stahl, FSEEE’s executive director, said the Forest Service’s plan is questionable based on the risks of retardant entering waterways.

“We don’t think the Clean Water Act countenances that level of pollution,” Stahl said. It’s possible, he said, that the court will put the proceedings on hold while the Forest Service seeks a general permit, in which case FSEEE may ask for a halt to retardant applications that could get into waterways.

In its filing, the Forest Service acknowledged that aerial retardant can kill wildlife if it get into streams and rivers, and that the agency used more of it in 2020 and 2021 because of more wildfires in those years.

21 thoughts on “Forest Service plans for continued use of fire retardant”

  1. Steve, I spoke with Andy and a few fire folks about this.
    All of the folks I spoke with agreed:
    (1) the FS could use more water drops instead of retardant in some conditions.

    (2) Retardant doesn’t work everywhere it is applied, and it is more likely to work in certain places and under certain conditions. But the idea that it “doesn’t work” is not particularly helpful to anyone.

    Certainly folks should not be dumping it into streams willy-nilly, but I’m not sure that they’re doing that; and if they are in certain circumstances maybe there would be a more direct way to get them to stop than a lawsuit to the FS, because perhaps CalFire and other states, the BLM and others also use it. Anyway after talking to these folks about it, I was still confused, so maybe Andy can chime in.

      • What I heard was there are situations in which it works really well, say grasses, but in other conditions it gets stuck at the top of vegetation (?) while the burn can continue underneath? I admit I didn’t quite understand but it had something to do with the type or structure of vegetation.

        • Retardant is most effective on flat grasslands in the morning. There have been a number of papers put out by the Rocky Mountain Research Station that show almost half of retardant drops are on steep timbered slopes in the afternoon where we know they won’t do anything. I have heard them called TV or CNN drops before where they are only done so that film of them will show up on the news to show that we are “doing something”…. an expensive use of taxpayer dollars.

            • Sharon — this RMRS paper might have some of what you’re seeking: “Our results confirm earlier work suggesting extensive use of large airtankers on extended attack, despite policy suggesting priority use in initial attack. Further, results suggest that containment rates for fires receiving large airtanker use during initial attack are quite low.”

              • Thanks, Andy! From the conclusions “Another
                central tenet in developing cost-effective fleet design is the identification of conditions where LAT use is likely to be ineffective or unsafe, including a movement towards the
                commitment to restrict LAT use under these conditions.” conceivably if they need to identify conditions where it is ineffective, it must be effective somewhere?

                • There’s no scientific evidence that it (large air tankers and/or fire retardant) is effective anywhere. By “scientific evidence,” I don’t mean anecdotes :).

        • In theory, the retardant swirls though the crown of trees and coats branches top to bottom. Many variables: release height, winds, etc.

    • The National Association of Forest Service Retirees has published a letter to USDA Secretary Vilsack on the FSEEE lawsuit and the use of fire retardants.


      FSEEE is requesting the Forest Service not to use fire retardant until the permit is secured. This
      could result in fire retardant not being available for use starting this 2023 fire year and would needlessly put billions of dollars of infrastructure/assets/natural resources and millions of people at risk.

      More importantly, it would remove a key tool used to safely fight wildfires and put at risk local, county, state, and federal firefighters at a time where wildfire is increasing in scale and scope across the western United States. Any court ruling has the potential to be nation-wide and affect the Department of the Interior (DOI), state fire agencies, and the Department of Defense (DOD), essentially all those who fight wildfires on federal, state and private lands.

      In our view, Congress will need to pass legislation, either to give agencies time to develop a
      national permit or to codify the existing firefighting exemption. At a minimum, a potential
      solution would be to pursue a legislative fix that would allow the agency time to work through
      the permitting process while continuing to use fire retardant.

      A much better and permanent solution would be to legislate that a permit not be required under this section, nor should any State require a permit, for application of fire retardant from aircraft in connection with fire suppression activities. We support the latter.

      • “FSEEE is requesting the Forest Service not to use fire retardant until the permit is secured.”

        That’s simply not true.

        It is the Forest Service, not FSEEE, who has said that if it isn’t allowed to pollute whenever and wherever it wishes, it won’t use retardant at all.

        FSEEE has asked for wider buffer strips (600′) to prevent drops into water. The existing 300′ buffers have proven insufficient with hundreds of so-called “accidental” violations. The FS has already expanded buffers to 600′ for certain T&E species.

        Another falsehoods in the retirees’ letter: “The Forest Service has been operating under the assumption that a NPDES permit was not required because the regulations for administering the NPDES system (40 CFR 122) specifically state that fire control is a “non-point source silvicultural activity” (40 CFR 122.27) and communications from EPA dating back to 1993 indicated a permit was not required.”

        Not true. The Forest Service has known since at least 2011 that a permit is required for retardant discharges into water. It sought to avoid getting a permit by telling EPA that it wasn’t discharging retardant into water, which turned out to be a lie.

        The biggest lie, however, is that retardant makes any difference when it comes to keeping fires small or protecting homes. It doesn’t.

        • Here’s what FSEEE requests in its lawsuit:

          WHEREFORE, Plaintiff Requests the Following Relief:

          A. Declare that the Forest Service’s continuous, on-going, and
          unpermitted discharges of retardant pollutants into waterways from
          aircraft point sources violate the CWA;

          B. Grant Plaintiff injunctive relief to compel the Forest Service to
          comply with applicable environmental statutes, prevent irreparable
          harm, and satisfy the public interest;

          C. Award Plaintiff its costs, expenses, expert witness fees, and
          reasonable attorney fees under applicable law; and

          D. Grant Plaintiff such further relief as may be just, proper, and

          • The conclusion from FSEEE’s reply brief filed yesterday:

            The Forest Service admits that it is dumping retardant into navigable waters without an NPDES permit, and it is now going through the process of obtaining a permit from the US EPA. FSEEE asks this Court to grant summary judgment in favor of FSEEE and enjoin the Forest Service from dumping retardant within 600 feet of waterbodies on national forests until it has an NPDES permit.

            FSEEE has never asked for an injunction against all retardant use, only against dumping it directly into water, which kills fish and is illegal.

            The Forest Service says that if it is not allowed to kill fish and act illegally, it will stop using retardant altogether.

            • FYI…. Press release.


              Today, Representatives Doug LaMalfa (R – CA) and Jimmy Panetta (D – CA) introduced the Forest Protection and Wildland Firefighter Safety Act of 2023. This bill creates a Clean Water Act exemption for federal, state, local, and tribal firefighting agencies to use fire retardant to fight wildfires. Fire retardant is an essential tool used to contain or slow the spread of wildfires. Currently the Forest Service and other agencies are operating under the assumption that a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is not required for the use of fire retardant because the regulations specifically state that fire control is a “non-point source silvicultural activity” and communications from EPA dating back to 1993 indicated a permit is not required.

              • “Currently the Forest Service and other agencies are operating under the assumption that a National Pollutant Discharge Elimination System (NPDES) permit is not required for the use of fire retardant because the regulations specifically state that fire control is a “non-point source silvicultural activity” and communications from EPA dating back to 1993 indicated a permit is not required.”

                Rep. LaMalfa got this bad info from the Forest Service retirees group. Retardant discharges from airplanes directly into water are NOT “non-point” sources — they are “point” sources. Nor is the Forest Service making the retirees’ argument in court. And for good reason; it has been rejected by courts at every opportunity. Not to mention, if LaMalfa & the retirees were correct there would be no need to amend the Clean Water Act, as LaMalfa proposes. Sheesh.

  2. Steve’s “I’ve seen [retardant] work very well” is an example of anecdotal evidence: “Anecdotal evidence is subjective, and unable to be independently verified. Scientific evidence is objective and can be independently verified.”

    In a 2011 FEIS on retardant use, the Forest Service wrote: “[t]o truly understand the influence of fire retardant on initial attack success and ultimate fire size, one would have to compare outcomes under similar fire behavior and fire retardant application circumstances. . . . Only a comparison of fire retardant use and non-use under similar circumstances can allow any valid conclusions to be drawn as to effectiveness of fire retardant.” The Forest Service asserted that “it is extremely difficult to accomplish this kind of controlled experimentation given the high degree of variability among wildfire incidents and the limited circumstances where fire can be allowed to burn unchecked for purely experimental purposes.”

    For more discussion of retardant effectiveness, see FSEEE’s comments on the agency’s draft SEIS on retardant.

    • Andy, thanks for reminding me of the definition of anecdotal evidence. I be there are thousands of other current and former wildland firefighters who have more of it.

      • Indeed, in preparing its previous EIS, the Forest Service polled firefighters for their anecdotal examples of when retardant was effective. The unscientific polling sought only examples of effective use of retardant — the FS did not ask for examples of where retardant made no difference in fire outcomes. Nonetheless, some respondents took the liberty of pointing out that in their experience retardant generally proved irrelevant to wildfire outcomes.

        Question for you, Steve. What empirical measures of “success” would you use to evaluate retardant effectiveness? The FS uses only initial attack success rate (% of ignitions that remain below 300 acres). However, its own research shows that retardant is not particularly useful in keeping fires small. Is there some other measure you think the FS ought to be using?

        • Andy, I reckon that modern aerial/satellite/drone imagery — including a variety of true-color, multispectral, and heat imaging sensors, plus change-detection software, could analyze photos before, during, and after retardant drops, and a GIS could analyze the area burned/unburned, burn severity, etc. This would provide crucial data and eliminate the need for pesky anecdotal evidence. Sounds like a great master’s thesis.

  3. Thx Andy for keeping things honest. My personal opinion is that retardant is useful in initial attack, can be a game changer. BUT should be subject to permit, and judicious stds like riparian protection (btw how about sticking to WATER drops near water?). In talking with several fire people with decades of experience, retardant is largely ineffective once fires blow up, especially with high winds. Might contain lateral growth. Otherwise, huge waste of money, but looks impressive on TV.


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