Commentary: Wildfire retardant is often ineffective. Here’s what communities should do instead.
Retardant — like many other top-down or last-ditch government efforts — is often wildly ineffective.
(Leah Hogsten | The Salt Lake Tribune) Planes drop fire retardants on a fire along State Route 143, the primary road to the southern Utah ski town of Brian Head, on Sunday, June 18, 2017.
Right now air tankers are flying the skies above the western United States where wildfires threaten homes. When these massive firefighting airplanes drop gallons and gallons of retardant, it can seem like the cavalry has arrived.
The problem is, retardant — like many other top-down or last-ditch government efforts — is often wildly ineffective.
Two years ago, I was assigned as a lookout with my hotshot crew on the Saddle Fire, a wildfire that threatened the southern Utah mountain community of Pine Valley for several weeks. I watched as drops of retardant completely missed targets or dropped into thick tree canopies, where it is useless.
Retardant only works under ideal circumstances — in areas with sparse fuels, little wind and firefighters on the ground to immediately secure the area. A 2016 study
found that aerial retardant is frequently used in situations when the fire behavior is too extreme for retardant to have any effect.
The urge to keep up appearances is also driving this unproductive practice. Local political pressure encourages incident commanders to continue to use retardant under circumstances when it will likely be ineffective. This is a significant problem.
The cost to use air tankers is also incredibly high. The largest aircraft costs about $50,000
per day just to sit on the tarmac and an additional $22,000 for each hour in the air. That doesn’t even include the $2-per-gallon Phos-Check retardant that is dropped from the 12,000-gallon tanks. It is not unusual for a single aircraft to rack up a quarter-million-dollar tab in a single day. Those are big-league taxpayer dollars at work with minimal results.
Additionally, aerial firefighting is extremely dangerous. Between 2000 and 2013, 53 pilots
or co-pilots died during wildfire operations.
Better and safer methods exist. Homeowners and communities can better prepare for wildfires with simple and inexpensive measures.
A few years ago, I was assigned to a fire in California on a fire engine tasked with protecting homes. Unfortunately, despite copious amounts of retardant being dropped that day, many homes (and the local fire station) burned to the ground.
In the heart of this devastation, I met a man named Joe. He was sitting in a lawn chair watching the impressive fire behavior on the mountainside while enjoying a cold drink. He was cool as a cucumber, and for good reason. Long before the fire had ignited, Joe cleared defensible space around his home — removing large trees, bushes and nearby firewood. The sprinklers he had carefully arranged were effectively wetting down his yard and house.
Although he didn’t want to see his neighbors’ homes burn, he didn’t have to worry about his own. In fact, because of his own preparation, Joe was in a position to help those around him. Joe had been forward-thinking enough to be aware of the danger where he lived and prepared accordingly.
Unfortunately, society is accustomed to looking for a “hero” when we get into situations like this. We believe the government will save us, but it is often too late for it to do so without high costs and collateral damage.
Even if you don’t live in a wildfire-prone area, the principles of preparation in any given community are also relevant to many other situations. Hope Squads composed of high school students give peer-to-peer intervention when they recognize depression and bullying issues with other students. The Red Cross’ “Sound the Alarm” campaign has volunteers installing thousands of life-saving smoke detectors in homes in their communities. Front-end solutions can prevent devastating back-end results.
When property owners use defensible space and other measures, their home is set up for a much higher chance of surviving. This action will also allow firefighters to more safely and successfully protect life and property.
Joe accomplished what massive firefighting agencies could not, and all it took was a minimal amount of preparation.
In other words, be like Joe.
Payton Hampton is a policy intern for Sutherland Institute. He has been a wildland firefighter for six years, most recently as a member of the U.S. Forest Service’s Logan Interagency Hotshot Crew.