Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, an Oregon-based environmental group, filed a lawsuit earlier this month against the U.S. Forest Service. The complaint alleges that the agency is in violation of the Clean Water Act by inadvertently dropping fire retardant into waterways. Andy Stahl is the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. He joins us with details of the complaint.
Note: A U.S. Forest Service spokesperson said the agency does not comment on pending or ongoing litigation.
Note: The following transcript was created by a computer and edited by a volunteer.
Dave Miller: Earlier this month, a Eugene-based environmental nonprofit filed suit against the U.S. Forest Service. They are trying to stop the agency from dropping flame retardant from the air when fighting wildfires. They say the agency is violating the Clean Water Act with continuous, ongoing, and unpermitted releases of pollutants into waterways. Andy Stahl is the executive director of the nonprofit. It’s called Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and he joins me now. It’s good to have you on the show.
Andy Stahl: Nice to be here, Dave.
Miller: Why has your organization been focused on the aerial use of flame retardant for more than a dozen years now?
Stahl: Well, it’s the single most hazardous activity that the Forest Service engages in. We lose pilots every year. That trade off might make sense, it might be worth killing a pilot if you were saving communities and homes, and might be worth killing fish and polluting water if doing so saved forests and communities and homes. The fact is it doesn’t. The dirty little secret about aerial fire retardant is that it doesn’t move the needle on fire effects, on what happens when you use retardant versus not using retardant. It’s because of that lack of evidence that retardant makes any difference in wildfire outcomes, that’s why we’re suing.
Miller: What does fire retardant do? If you’re saying it doesn’t prevent the loss of life or homes, does it not prevent the spread of wildfires in forests?
Stahl: In most situations, it does not prevent the spread of wildfires in forests. Just two years ago, our Labor Day fires are a really good example of that. Those fires spread. They were blown by high winds, and the high winds would blow a fire over any retardant line that you happen to draw on the landscape. That’s traditionally the case. We see that over and over, that these fires are affected more by wind than anything else. You take a fire, you combine it with fuels, and you blow hot air across it and it goes like crazy. It’ll jump a six lane freeway. It’ll jump a retardant line.
Miller: If what you’re saying is true, why do you think fire retardant is still used?
Stahl: That’s a really good question, Dave. I think it’s because people are reluctant to say that the emperor has no clothes. We like to think that we will throw everything into the mix, all the tools in our toolkit, and maybe some will stick, maybe some might make a difference. Because it’s a war against fire, basically anything goes and we’re just going to throw everything at it and prove to the public that we’re taking every effort possible to protect them.
Miller: Your argument isn’t simply that fire retardant from the air for wildfires isn’t effective, but it is itself a problem. What are the problems, that you see, that come from the use of these chemicals?
Stahl: So fire retardant is fertilizer. It’s ammonium phosphate, and it’s mixed with water. It’s the same kind of fertilizer that a farmer uses in their fields. We know that we want to keep fertilizer out of water. We would never countenance farmers dumping their fertilizer directly into the streams that flow through their property, but that’s exactly what the Forest Service does in fighting fires; it dumps fertilizer directly in the streams that flow through the National Forest. Doing so kills fish. This fertilizer turns into ammonia in the water, and ammonia is highly toxic to fish.
We’ve seen this on several occasions outside Bend, Oregon some years ago. A retardant drop was made next to a fish hatchery. Thousands of fish were killed. That stream took years to recover. So, since it doesn’t help us fight the fire, and on the other hand, it also kills fish, begs the question of why bother? Why not, if you want to fight fire from the air, why not just dump water? We know water doesn’t kill fish.
Miller: Would you support that? I mean, if you’re saying the fire retardant doesn’t work, are you arguing that water works better, or simply that water doesn’t hurt fish?
Stahl: Certainly water doesn’t hurt fish. It’s an open question whether fighting fire from the air makes any difference at all, whether you’re dropping water or retardant, but it’s a lot safer to do that experiment with something that isn’t toxic. If firefighters feel the need to continue employing an air force to fight fire, then dump the water and leave the retardant at home.
Miller: How much fire retardant is being dropped in the west these days?
Stahl: Millions of gallons. Half of the fire retardant dropped is dumped in one state, California. 98% of the retardant dropped is dropped west of the Mississippi River. Virtually no retardant at all is used East of the Mississippi River.
Miller: Doesn’t that roughly correspond to the places that have the most wildfires?
Stahl: No, but it does roughly correspond to the places that have the most federal land. Retardant is very expensive, and most state firefighting agencies that fight wildfires on private and state land don’t use retardant, because it is so expensive and its effectiveness is unproven. But when you’re the federal government, you get to print money. Basically, you can think of retardant as dropping dollar bills out of the airplane. It does just about as good. It’s that expensive.
Miller: It doesn’t sound like you’re actually endorsing dropping water from airplanes either. You seem very skeptical of, as you say, using an air force to fight wildfires. What are you suggesting instead?
Stahl: Every firefighter knows that you contain a fire with troops on the ground. People building a fire line around the fire. That’s the only way that we humans make a real difference when it comes to fire. We also know that, under conditions where it’s hard to contain a fire, low humidity, high wind, nature will be what puts a fire out.
Miller: Where embers could travel, say, a mile.
Stahl: That’s right. Then, basically, firefighters sensibly retreat. They don’t risk their lives. They retreat, and we hope for rain, because it will be rain that puts the fire out. All of which ties into the earlier conversation today on your show, Dave. It’s so important that people understand that they are not protected from fire. They need to take steps with their own homes to make them fire-wise, to make their homes and landscape resistant to fire, because just like earthquakes, just like tsunamis, just like hurricanes, we can’t prevent it. It will happen. So be prepared.
Miller: Just briefly: this is actually your third lawsuit regarding the aerial use of flame retardants. What happened with the first two?
Stahl: We won both of them. The first lawsuit we won, it established that the environmental laws do actually apply to retardant use. The government said they didn’t. The second lawsuit we enforce the government’s half-hearted attempts to comply with those laws. The result of that was that the Forest Service committed to avoid dumping retardant in water. However, the last 10 years has proven the forest service breaks that promise routinely, and it has dropped retardant and water hundreds of times. That’s why we’re bringing the third case.
Miller: Andy Stahl, thanks very much for joining us.
Stahl: My pleasure, Dave.
Miller: Andy Stahl is the executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. I should note that we did contact the U.S. Forest Service and they told us that they do not comment on pending litigation.
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