Get breaking news alerts via email

Click here to manage your alerts
In this June 19, 2012 photo provided by the Colorado National Guard, an aircraft drops a load of fire retardant slurry above the High Park wildfire about 15 miles west of Fort Collins, Colo. The ammonium phosphate dropped from airplanes to slow the spread of raging wildfires can turn a pristine mountain stream into a death zone for trout and some say the retardant has never been proven effective. (AP Photo/Colorado National Guard, John Rohrer)
Debate over fire retardant toxicity rages in West
Wildfires » New rules aim to keep millions of gallons of the substance from poisoning streams.
First Published Jun 22 2012 01:48 pm • Last Updated Jun 22 2012 01:50 pm

Cheyenne, Wyo. • Forest Service officials insist firefighting won’t be hindered by new rules meant to prevent millions of gallons of retardant dropped onto scorched landscapes each year from poisoning streams and killing fish and plants.

The agency rules that resulted from a lawsuit require drops to come no closer than 300 feet from streams and lakes except when human safety is at risk, adding a new concern for the tanker plane pilots who barnstorm low over treacherous terrain to spread the fire retardant.

Join the Discussion
Post a Comment

The substance consisting primarily of ammonium phosphate also can’t be dropped in areas with endangered or threatened plants.

"It is an increasing workload, there’s no doubt about that," said Dan Snyder, president of Missoula, Mont.-based Neptune Aviation Services, which operates eight Lockheed P2V planes.

"It may reduce the speed at which they can affect the fire because they do need to take those few extra minutes to study the charts and plan on how they can put the retardant on the ground and still comply with the rules."

Still, the company, which operates almost half of the U.S. private fleet of large tanker planes, agrees for the most part that the new regulations won’t set back firefighters.

Basically a fertilizer, ammonium phosphate has been known to kill off fish, though documented cases of fish killed by fire retardant are relatively rare. One case came in 2009 when ammonia in retardant dropped on wildfires near Santa Barbara, Calif., killed 50 protected steelhead trout in the Santa Ynez River.

In 2002, a slurry bomber inadvertently dumped between 1,000 and 2,000 gallons of fire retardant on the Fall River about 25 miles south of Bend, Ore. The retardant immediately killed all of the river’s fish, an estimated 21,000 mainly juvenile brown trout, redband trout and mountain whitefish over a six-mile stretch.

But the culprit in that case was sodium ferrocyanide, which became toxic to fish under certain environmental conditions and is longer used in fire retardant.

"We found out the hard way there was a small amount of chemical in some of the products that did have this characteristic," said Cecilia Johnson, fire chemicals technical specialist at the agency’s Missoula Technology and Development Center in Montana.

story continues below
story continues below

The Fall River fish population began to recover after a couple years, said Steve Marks, a fish biologist for the Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics in Eugene, Ore., filed the first of two lawsuits over the Forest Service’s fire retardant policies in the aftermath of the Oregon spill.

Since then, fire retardant manufacturers also have cut the ammonium in retardant by half over the last decade without sacrificing effectiveness, according to Johnson.

"It’s as good or better," Johnson said.

The group that brought about the changes by filing suit says the Forest Service rules aren’t as big of an issue as whether fire retardant even works.

The agency has never proven in the field that fire retardant is effective, said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

"Why use it if it’s not effective? If it’s not effective, I don’t care if it’s environmentally benign. It’s a waste of money and firefighters’ lives," Stahl said.

"The case for retardant use is not sufficiently strong to offset the environmental effects."

Rubbish, say Forest Service officials, who cite decades of rigorous laboratory testing and relate the accounts of plenty of ground and aerial firefighters who insist that fire retardant not only works, it works well.

"When enough people in enough places say retardant helps, we have to believe they’re not making it up," Johnson said.

The lab assesses not just the efficacy but the toxicity of fire retardant, which is blended into water and dumped from airplanes onto fire as a slurry mixture.

Next Page >

Copyright 2014 The Salt Lake Tribune. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed.

Top Reader Comments Read All Comments Post a Comment
Click here to read all comments   Click here to post a comment

About Reader Comments

Reader comments on sltrib.com are the opinions of the writer, not The Salt Lake Tribune. We will delete comments containing obscenities, personal attacks and inappropriate or offensive remarks. Flagrant or repeat violators will be banned. If you see an objectionable comment, please alert us by clicking the arrow on the upper right side of the comment and selecting "Flag comment as inappropriate". If you've recently registered with Disqus or aren't seeing your comments immediately, you may need to verify your email address. To do so, visit disqus.com/account.
See more about comments here.
Staying Connected
Contests and Promotions
  • Search Obituaries
  • Place an Obituary

  • Search Cars
  • Search Homes
  • Search Jobs
  • Search Marketplace
  • Search Legal Notices

  • Other Services
  • Advertise With Us
  • Subscribe to the Newspaper
  • Access your e-Edition
  • Frequently Asked Questions
  • Contact a newsroom staff member
  • Access the Trib Archives
  • Privacy Policy
  • Missing your paper? Need to place your paper on vacation hold? For this and any other subscription related needs, click here or call 801.204.6100.