Lawsuit attempts to restrict the use of fire retardant on fires

S2 air tanker by Bill Gabbert
S-2 air tanker. Photo: Bill Gabbert

An organization that has been attempting since 2003 to use the court system to restrict or prohibit the use of fire retardant on fires has filed another lawsuit against the U. S. Forest Service.

Reporters for the Associated Press and the New York Times have different slants on the story. Here is how Jeff Barnard of the AP began his article:

GRANTS PASS, Ore. — A federal judge Wednesday ordered the U.S. Forest Service to take a tougher look at the possibility that routinely dropping toxic fire retardant on wildfires from airplanes will kill endangered fish and plants.

Here is an excerpt from an article by William Yardley at the New York Times:

SEATTLE — A federal judge has ruled that the federal Forest Service’s plan for using fire retardant to fight wildfires violates the law because it does not ensure protections for threatened and endangered species of fish and other animals.

Dropped from airplanes and helicopters, reddish clouds of retardant are often the most visible tool used to fight wildfires, particularly in rugged areas of the West. Yet chemicals in the most common retardants can hurt wildlife, particularly when they miss their mark. In some cases, large numbers of fish have been killed when retardant has been dropped into lakes and streams.

The plan encourages pilots not to drop retardant within 300 feet of a body of water, but it allows for exceptions if flying conditions require it or if lives or property are in danger.

Late Tuesday, the judge, Donald W. Molloy of Federal District Court in Montana, ordered the Forest Service, the Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service to conduct more rigorous environmental reviews of the ways retardant affects wildlife and to place more specific restrictions on how it is used. Judge Molloy did not halt the use of retardant but said he would consider doing so if new procedures were not in place by the end of 2011.

“The issue requires immediate attention,” the judge wrote.

Judge Molloy wrote that “by failing to impose any binding restrictions on the use of fire retardant where it may affect listed species or critical habitat,” the federal agencies in charge of protecting endangered species “have failed to alleviate the risk of jeopardy to listed species.”

Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said that the agency was “still evaluating” the decision, but that it would “comply fully with all the direction from the court on this ruling.” Ms. Jones added that by slowing down the spread of fires, retardant can also protect endangered species.

Andy Stahl, the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which brought the case against the government, noted that fighting wildfires has consumed increasingly larger amounts of the Forest Service’s budget as development has expanded into fire-prone areas of the West. Mr. Stahl is among many critics who say that the Forest Service should be more selective about which fires it fights in arid areas, where fires often occur naturally, and that the agency should focus more of its attention on practices that nurture forest health.

“The aerial war against wildfires is bankrupting the Forest Service,” he said.

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Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire.

6 thoughts on “Lawsuit attempts to restrict the use of fire retardant on fires”

    1. Stanly-

      ALL aviation? Reconnaissance, mapping, IR flights, transporting firefighters, moving supplies, installing radio repeaters, and dropping retardant? Could you be more specific, and why?

    2. Stanly-

      I have the same questions as Bill, and I would really like to know why you think that all aviation should be shut down.

  1. Kinda sounds to me like someone thinks they need more funding to study the effects of a bear pooping in the woods. So lets stop giving money to the evil fire fighters.

  2. What do they think happens when the fire burns through? Everything dies and over a larger area.


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