Photos of retardant dropped in Sespe Creek during Howard Fire

Map retardant Sespe Creek Howard Fire
Map showing location of photos of retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. The red area is the western side of the fire Oct. 12, 2022. The photo locations were obtained from the metadata in the iPhone photos.

A lawsuit filed Tuesday alleged that the US Forest Service has polluted waterways by firefighting air tankers inadvertently dropping fire retardant in or near waterways in violation of the Clean Water Act and a policy adopted by the Forest Service and other federal agencies in 2011. The policy requires that retardant not be dropped within 300 feet of a waterway on federal land.

Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire
Photo 1. Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. Oct. 12, 2022. Peter Deneen.

Fire Aviation has acquired photos and a video that reportedly show signs of retardant being dropped into Sespe Creek on the Los Padres National Forest 8 miles northeast of Ojai, California October 8, 2022. The photos were shot by Pete Deneen on October 12, 2022 at the 85-acre Howard Fire. The creek is designated a “wild and scenic river” and is in a wilderness area.

Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire
Photo 2. Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. Oct. 12, 2022. Peter Deneen.

The photos show retardant on rocks and other objects very close to water in Sespe Creek.

Retardant near Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire
Photo 3. Retardant in a dry area of Sespe Creek at the Howard Fire. Oct. 12, 2022. Peter Deneen.

Some organisms, including aquatic threatened and endangered species or their habitats, can be adversely affected by retardants. In addition, retardant in water is a pollutant.

According to US Forest Service data, between 2012 and 2019, the Forest Service discharged retardant on at least 376 occasions totaling 761,282 gallons from aircraft directly into national forest waterways.

In the video below Mr. Deneen explains that there were two locations where retardant was dropped very close to the creek. In one case the aircraft may have turned as it was dropping to follow the creek for several hundred yards, or a second drop accounted for the retardant in the waterway.

The lawsuit was filed Oct. 11 by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, FSEEE. In the group’s complaint they are seeking:

  • A declaration that the Forest Service’s placement of retardant in waterways is a violation of the Clean Water Act.
  • An injunction “to compel the Forest Service to comply with applicable environmental statutes, prevent irreparable harm, and satisfy the public interest.”
  • Reimbursement for FSEEE’s costs, expenses, expert witness fees, and attorney fees.
  • “Such further relief as may be just, proper, and equitable.”

More about FSEEE’s history of protesting retardant, and the federal government’s policy of retardant avoidance areas established in 2011.

Environmental group files lawsuit against US Forest Service over use of fire retardant

Air Tanker 41, a BAe-146
Air Tanker 41, a BAe-146, drops retardant. BLM photo.

An environmental group filed a lawsuit in a Montana federal court Tuesday alleging that the US Forest Service has polluted waterways by inadvertently dropping fire retardant in or near waterways.  The retardant was dropped by aircraft under contract with the Forest Service while assisting wildland firefighters on the ground.

The suit says government data released earlier this year showed more than 760,000 gallons of fire retardant was dropped into waterways between 2012 and 2019. The lawsuit alleges the continued use of retardant from aircraft violates the Clean Water Act and requests a judge to declare the pollution illegal.

retardant avoidance areas
Example of retardant avoidance areas (red) in Northern California along Hwy. 96 near Klamath River.

The Forest Service has established retardant avoidance areas along waterways where the liquid is not supposed to be applied. This puts buffer zones around waterways and habitat for some threatened, endangered, and sensitive species in order to avoid applying retardant in those areas. When they were first established in 2011 it resulted in approximately 30 percent of USFS lands being off limits for retardant while fighting fire. There is an exception if human life or public safety is threatened. The policy was the result of an Environmental Impact Statement (EIS) that studied the use of retardant and how it affects water resources and certain plant and wildlife species. The EIS was written in response to a July, 2010 decision by U. S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The same organization, FSEEE, filed the new case yesterday. An attorney in Missoula, MT who specializes in environmental law, Tim Bechtold, will be representing FSEEE. Presiding over the case will be District Court Judge Dana Christensen. He joined the court in 2011 after a nomination from President Barack Obama. Before, he was a partner in the firm of Christensen, Moore, Cockrell, Cummings, and Axelberg, in Kalispell, Montana. One of the 15 practice areas the firm deals with today is environment and natural resources.

In 2012 FSEEE issued a statement criticizing the use of air tankers on fires, claiming it is “immoral”. The group argued that aerial firefighting is too dangerous and ineffective and that “retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.”

Organization calls aerial firefighting “immoral”

The same organization that forced the U.S. Forest Service to issue an Environmental Impact Statement on the use of fire retardant and sued the federal government to protect the northern spotted owl has issued a statement criticizing the use of airtankers on fires, claiming that it is “immoral.” The  Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, whose motto is “Forest Service employees and citizens working together to protect our National Forests,” argues that aerial firefighting is too dangerous and ineffective and that “retardant doesn’t save homes; proper construction and landscaping save homes.”

Here is an excerpt from the FSEEE statement written by Andy Stahl, their executive director, on Wednesday, four days after Tanker 11 crashed in Utah, killing the two pilots:

In 2002, a government-appointed Blue Ribbon Panel concluded that “The safety record of fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters used in wildland fire management is unacceptable.” The report also noted “if ground firefighters had the same fatality rate [as firefighting aviators], they would have suffered more than 200 on-the-job deaths per year.” Since the Blue Ribbon report’s publication, aviation-related fatalities have gone up 50 percent compared to the three-year period preceding the panel’s report—not including this past weekend’s tragic loss of life.

Mr. Stahl makes a good point about the fatality rate being far too high. And it IS unacceptable. However his statistics are a little shaky, using only a 3-year period as a base comparison, when the annual variability in the number of fatalities can be extreme.

Using some draft statistics for airtanker crew fatalities originally compiled by Chuck Bushey, with a little of our help recently in updating them, we did our own analysis. We compared the 10 years before 2002, the year that two airtankers had in-flight wing failures and the Blue Ribbon Report was published, to the following 10-year period, and came up with different results from Mr. Stahl’s. The years 2003 through 2012 (to date) show a 24 percent reduction in airtanker crash fatalities over the pre-2002 10-year period. These numbers are based on draft data and could change.

But again, far too many fine pilots have died in airtanker crashes since 1958, including the last 10 years. The profession should not be this dangerous and the state and federal agencies need to be held responsible to provide the pilots with the best possible training, equipment, management, and dispatching so that they can perform their jobs as safely as possible. Saying it’s the contractors’ responsibility is not acceptable. I would argue that a modern aircraft is safer for this mission than one that was built for maritime patrol in the 1950s, like the P2Vs we are currently using to fly in and usually out of smoky canyons, low and slow, in mountainous terrain with challenging density altitude conditions.

Mr. Stahl does make some valid points about the state of our airtanker fleet and how fire-safe home construction and vegetation clearance are the best methods for preventing structures from burning. But here is the quote where he uses the term “immoral”:

Ten years ago, the government’s Blue Ribbon panel said the aerial firefighters’ death rate was “unacceptable.” Today, the government’s fruitless and ineffective aerial war against wildland fire can only be called immoral. Congress should stop pandering to our innate fear of fire and promote sensible fire management policies that save lives and homes.

USFS accepting comments on draft EIS for use of fire retardant

fire retardant dropping
Photo by Bill Gabbert

The U. S. Forest Service is accepting public comments on a draft Environmental Impact Statement (DEIS) they just completed on the use of fire retardant. The DEIS was written in response to a July, 2010 decision by U. S. District Court Judge Donald Molloy in a lawsuit filed in 2008 by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics.

The FSEEE claims that the use of retardant damages aquatic resources and terrestrial ecosystems. In October 2010 the organization stated their opinion on the effectiveness of retardant on fires.

There is no evidence that aerially-applied chemical fire retardant is effective in meeting any wildland firefighting objectives. For example, there are no studies or data that evaluate home losses to wildland fire as a result of etardant use vs. non-use. There are no studies or data that evaluate firefighter injuries or fatalities as a result of retardant use vs. non-use. There are no studies or data that evaluate the proportion of fire retardant drops that actually influence a fire’s ultimate disposition, as opposed to those drops that prove irrelevant to the fire’s fate, e.g., are dropped outside the fire’s final perimeter. Although retardant slows the rate at which fire spreads through some flammable materials in laboratory conditions, that’s a far cry from retardant affecting fire outcomes in the real world of wildland firefighting.

The DEIS is available online for review and comment. The USFS will consider public remarks submitted during the comment period in the development of the final environmental impact statement expected to be completed by Dec. 31, 2011.

The Forest Service will host several community listening sessions:

  • May 24, Ocala, Fla.
  • May 26, Missoula, MT
  • June 7, Santa Barbara, Calif.
  • June 9, Wenatchee, Wash.
  • June 15, Tucson, Ariz.
  • June 16, National Community Listening Session via webinar

More information about the listening sessions, including times and locations.

FSEEE will file lawsuit over retardant use

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics intends to file a lawsuit against the U.S. Department of Commerce, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, and Santa Barbara County Fire Department. The FSEEE filed a “notice to sue” with the three agencies on Wednesday, which is required by the Endangered Species Act at least 60-days prior to filing a lawsuit.

The group charges that during the suppression of the Jesusita fire near Santa Barbara, California last May, about 50 steelhead trout were killed by fire retardant. FSEEE said in the notice that the agencies violated the Endangered Species Act.

The group has been campaigning against the use of fire retardant since at least 2004.

Group files second suit against USFS about retardant

From the Missoulian, an excerpt:

“An environmental watchdog group on Wednesday sued the U.S. Forest Service for a second time over the agency’s use of aerial fire retardants.

The Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an Oregon-based nonprofit group, filed the lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Missoula.

The lawsuit is part of the group’s campaign to reform the Forest Service’s wildland firefighting mission.

The campaign includes banning retardant airdrops nationwide unless people or homes are threatened, focusing on fire prevention around communities, and allowing more remote wildfires to burn as a natural part of the ecosystem.

The lawsuit accuses the Forest Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the National Marine Fisheries Service of failing to fully evaluate the environmental impact of the aerial retardants.

Studies show the ammonium-based retardants are toxic to fish and other aquatic organisms, and promote the spread of flammable invasive weeds.

FSEEE won an earlier retardant-related lawsuit against the Forest Service when U.S. District Judge Donald Molloy ruled that the agency had violated federal law by failing to properly review the environmental impact of retardants on national forests.

That lawsuit – which was filed in 2003, a year after a retardant airdrop killed 20,000 fish in an Oregon stream – was dismissed in February when the Forest Service complied with Molloy’s order to complete an environmental assessment of aerial retardants.

FSEEE’s latest lawsuit challenges the Forest Service’s assessment, which found that the chemical red slurry has no significant environmental impact.

In their biological opinions, the Fish and Wildlife Service and National Marine Fisheries Service said retardants jeopardize 45 endangered or threatened fish, plant, insect, mussel and amphibian species and their critical habitats.

The lawsuit includes those two agencies because they said the Forest Service could avoid jeopardizing the environment if it followed “reasonable and prudent alternatives” when dropping retardants.


The new lawsuit challenges the three agencies’ environmental analyses, conclusions and decisions, saying they violate the National Environmental Policy Act, the Endangered Species Act and other federal laws.

FSEEE said the Forest Service should be forced to complete an environmental impact statement, which is more detailed than an environmental assessment, and that the “reasonable and prudent alternatives” do not prevent harm to the protected species and their critical habitat.”

The Flathead Beacon at Kalispell, Montana had this to say, in part:

“Nuts? Yep, yet FSEEE righteously claims its “mission is to forge a socially responsible value system for the U.S. Forest Service.” They intend to ram their retardant version of social responsibility through the courts, and just might.

Don’t be surprised if FSEEE files their case, and on some trivial technicality, an injunction comes down at the worst possible time. Some poor fire boss will have to announce: “Folks, we need to ground our air fleet and wash out the tanks today. We’re also pulling all our crews, as the bombers were the last chance we had of holding this line without killing someone. Sorry. The judge says a one in 5,000 chance of killing a few minnows overrides any of your trivial concerns. We hope you got your heirlooms and families out in time, have a nice day.”

Retardant justice, indeed.”

Photo courtesy of the Zion Helitack blog