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Editorial: Banning Retardants Will Cost Lives

Many of our readers have likely read from recent news coverage that federal agencies charged with providing aerial firefighting resources are now having to fight in the federal court system to continue using one of the biggest weapons available to wildland firefighters, fire retardant.

As this is being written, U.S. District Judge Dana Christensen in Missoula, Montana, is hearing oral arguments from lawyers representing the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) organization who filed suit against the U.S Forest Service.  FSEEE is seeking the court to issue an injunction blocking firefighting officials from using aerial retardant until they get a pollution permit, a permit that the Forest Service could take years to obtain. FSEEE has, for years, advocated that the continued use of retardants causes damage to waterways and streams and should, therefore, ultimately be banned.   

The suit fails to mention the voluntary measures already taken by the U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, BLM, DOI, and every vendor tasked with dropping retardant. Retardants are forbidden from being dropped within 300 feet of a water source. It is only approved for use in avoidance areas where threats exist to life and property, per a 2011 US government rule

 While accidents have occurred, retardant reporting is mandated for all incursions, and those accidental discharges of retardant consist of less than 1% of all retardants dropped in decades of aerial firefighting. Once the retardant reporting is documented, forest biologists investigate and monitor the site to ascertain if and what damage has or may occur.  It is largely speculated that most avoidance area drops had little, if any, impact on the drop site; however, that can be substantiated in the results of the government’s retardant intrusion reports.

So in a world where the beating of the drum of social justice, climate change, and environmental concerns trump continuing life as we know it, the FSEEE expects the government to ban the use of one of the most effective firefighting tools we have in the arsenal.  This is in order to appease a group of activists masquerading as staff members from the same agency that the suit has been filed against to protect the 1% chance that some fish may die and a waterway may need some temporary help to return to normal after a drop was made that saved several thousand lives? Bear in mind the destruction of a watershed by fire will most likely annihilate the entire stream; however, this is not what the environmental lobby is concerned with.

This suit, even if successful in a temporary or short-term injunction, has the potential for deadly consequences. The term “cutting off your nose to spite your face” doesn’t even cover the thought process that believes banning retardants to potentially save fish and streams that may or may not have a 1% chance of being at risk is a wise move. That’s like saying there is a 1% chance you might cut yourself in the kitchen, so you should throw away your knives and invest in plastic sporks. 

A ruling in favor of the FSEEE has the potential to halve the abilities and effectiveness of the current aerial firefighting fleet and relegate any retardant aircraft to now only being able to drop water or enhanced water.  Although effective as a suppressant, at the moment, water provides exactly zero preventative purposes in directing a fire or preventing loss of life, like using retardant to direct the fire away from populated areas.  Unlike retardant, water alone will not buy firefighters on the ground the time they need to accomplish specific objectives to control a fire.

Last week, I flew over Paradise, a small town in Northern California,  devastated by 2018’s Camp Fire, which killed 85 people, and destroyed approximately 20,000 structures. Nearly five years later, the town is still half empty. Foundations of houses still standing where whole homes once stood. This requested injunction would disregard the lives of those in firestorms like the Camp Fire in favor of flora and fauna ahead of human life. In a statement to CBS News, the mayor of Paradise said the lawsuit is “callous” for homeowners and citizens who have experienced a wildfire. “They are saying that people’s lives are not that important. They want to save a few fish than people’s homes, lives, and belongings… it’s a callous way to come at this thing. It’s hurtful.” said Bolin. 

Bolin’s response has joined a chorus of industry professionals speaking out against the suit and the potentially catastrophic consequences should it succeed through the courts, including Matt Diaz from the California Forestry Association, who stated: “The use of fire retardant can make the difference between life and death, or whether communities and private property are saved or engulfed in flames. Aerial fire retardants are one of the most critical tools in fighting wildfires. The loss of that important tool would jeopardize the carefully coordinated system of wildfire response among federal, state, and local governments across the country, putting both firefighter and civilian lives and property at risk. We urge the court to seriously consider the dangerous ripple effects we would face without aerial fire retardants.”

I can’t even blame it on being a whacky, poorly thought-out policy like the federal government’s plan to ban the purchase of gas-powered vehicles by 2035. Anyone who can do the math can figure out that there needs to be more infrastructure for electric vehicles. Even at their best pace, the federal government cannot handle the power draw created by an all-electric infrastructure where places like California suffer rolling brownouts even today before any extra demand is placed.

The same goes for aerial firefighting but in reverse. You can’t take away 50% of the ability to fight fires from every agency and aircraft in the national fleet and expect the same effectiveness and results. Expecting minimal loss of life and identical performance while wildfires continue to grow while tying one hand tied behind their backs is equivalent to an adult still believing in the tooth fairy.

Ryan Mason
Ryan is an accomplished writer and aerial photographer that has worked in the aviation industry for over a decade before co-founding AerialFire Magazine. Originally from Melbourne, Australia, Ryan is a former police officer that focuses his writing and photography efforts on para-public operations and agricultural aviation.

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