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Climate and Environment

A Federal Lawsuit Says Chemical Fire Retardants Harm The Environment. Firefighters Call Them A 'Crucial' Tool

A fixed wing airplane dumps what looks like a red cloud over hills covered in trees.
A firefighting jet drops fire retardant at the Alisal Fire on Oct. 13, 2021 near Goleta.
(David McNew
Getty Images)
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If you live in California, chances are you're familiar with Phos-Chek — that neon pink substance that's dropped out of a helicopter or plane and used to help slow the spread of wildfire. While images like these have become synonymous with wildland firefighting in California, pending legal action could change wildland firefighters' ability to use chemical fire retardants to fight wildfires.

Last October, the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics filed suit in Montana against the U.S. Forest Service, arguing that the agency's use of aerial fire retardant, which contains inorganic fertilizers, was harming ecosystems and violating the Clean Water Act. The U.S. Forest Service mostly uses ammonium phosphate-based retardant, which is designed to reduce the speed and intensity with which the flames spread, making the fires more tractable for crews on the ground. California officials are watching the case closely, as its outcome could have an effect on the way firefighters in California approach wildland firefighting.

A burning problem

“It's a tool within the toolbox that is accompanied by ground forces and other tactical deployment opportunities,” California Forestry Association (Calforests) President Matt Dias told our newsroom's public affairs show "AirTalk" — which airs on 89.3 FM. “But without the ability to deploy retardant, the lives of firefighters and the communities that are surrounding these wildfires are at a higher risk, without a doubt.”

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Dias, whose organization represents lumber mills and other businesses within the forestry sector, says aerial fire retardants are crucial in suppressing wildfires, both in the initial stages and after the conflagration has begun to spread and intensify — and especially in areas where poor topography makes ground access challenging.

Five people with their backs turned to the camera watch as a fixed wing airplane releases a cloudy, pink substance from its underside onto a landscape below
TOPSHOT - Residents watch as a plane drops fire retardant over homes in Hemet, California on September 6, 2022. - At least two people are dead and thousands have been ordered to flee the rapidly spreading Fairview Fire in California, with the region's oppressive heatwave expected to peak Tuesday. (Photo by Frederic J. Brown / AFP) (Photo by FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images)
(FREDERIC J. BROWN/AFP via Getty Images

More harm than good?

Timothy Ingalsbee is a former wildland firefighter and the executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, a grassroots organization that advocates for wildfire management through proactive instead of reactive measures. He says fire retardants can be harmful depending on where and when they’re used, but mostly, they simply don’t help.

“It's not effective,” Ingalsbee says. “It's an iconic image of firefighting, makes great film, but it's not necessarily a critical tool being used.”

While Calforests' Dias pointed to the retardant’s ability to reach remote locations as a strength, Ingalsbee argues this actually makes its usage less effective, because retardant decreases the rate of the spread rather than actually stopping it, and since ground crews can’t stay nearby in these challenging topographies, they can't immediately take advantage of the temporarily slowed spread to deploy ground tactics — like cutting containment lines to create a physical barrier for the flames.

“It's not effective. It's an iconic image of firefighting, makes great film, but it's not necessarily a critical tool being used.”
— Timothy Ingalsbee, Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology

The result? The speed would just pick right back up again, according to Ingalsbee.

Another issue, he says, is the cost of retardants like Phos-Chek, which he estimates can total a quarter of the costs of suppressing a wildfire. If the money wasn’t going towards this one tactic for putting out fires, he says it could be better spent on funding forest jobs to support proactive management of fuels.

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Calforests' Dias agrees that prevention is hugely important, and noted that Cal Fire routinely performs prescribed burns as a proactive management tactic. But he says with the wildfire crisis accelerating, the immediate effects are violent and devastating, and limiting the use of a key tool in firefighters arsenal could have deadly consequences.

“We have mudslides that are barring towns in Southern California. We have Northern California million-acre fires occurring at one time,” Dias says. “When wildfires strike during the summer months, you have no option except to get those fires out immediately.”

Listen to the conversation

Fire Retardant Lawsuit 04.03.2023
What questions do you have about Southern California?

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