BOULDER, Colo. – Lost in the images of aircraft dropping giant red plumes of retardant on a Colorado wildfire this week is the fact that the practice may not be legal under federal environmental laws.
A federal judge in July declared that the government's current plan for dropping retardant on fires is illegal, and he gave the U.S. Forest Service until the end of next year to find a more environmentally friendly alternative.
The aerial assaults have become a permanent fixture of television and media coverage of wildfires in recent years as planes and helicopters drop big loads of red chemicals over blazes. But environmentalists say the efforts are essentially public relations stunts that can send millions of gallons of hazardous chemicals into waterways while doing little to contain fires.
The fire retardant used to battle wildfires is 85 percent water, and the rest is made up of fertilizer and an anti-corrosion chemical meant to protect the air tankers that carry it. It also contains a red dye to help fire crews see the drops as they fall to the ground.
When mixed with water, the fertilizer component helps deprive wildfires of oxygen. But when dumped or dropped in a creek or lake, it can kill fish and plants.
"Just as any farmer knows not to drop liquid fertilizer in a creek or they'll go to jail ... retardant should not be dropped into a creek with a threatened or endangered species," said Andy Stahl of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, which brought the lawsuit that led to the judge's ruling earlier this year.
U.S. District Judge Donald W. Molloy in Missoula, Mont., wrote that government analyses of the practice violated the Endangered Species Act by failing to put any real limits on firefighters from calling in retardant drops.
For firefighters in charge of gaining control of an inferno that endangers human life and property, retardant is an important part of their arsenal that can help slow — but not extinguish — a blaze. Pilots do not drop retardant on fires themselves, but in the areas around them to halt their spread.
In an emergency where people's lives are in danger, environmental concerns often take a back seat to firefighting. Environmental critics aren't against the retardant drops themselves, but they do oppose dumping chemicals near important waterways and endangered species.
More than 156,000 gallons of retardant have been dropped near Boulder since Monday in a wind-whipped fire that destroyed about 170 homes in a drought-ravaged region. The Forest Service dropped about 20 million gallons of retardant nationally in 2008.
Jennifer Jones, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service, said environmental concerns are a factor when the agency or other officials decide on retardant's use, and pilots are instructed to stay at least 300 feet away from bodies of water.
Jones said there are exceptions that allow for retardant drops anywhere in a severe fire emergency. She says the forest service and other agencies affected by Molloy's ruling are complying with it, and will have an environmental impact statement completed by the end of next year.
"The Forest Service conducted experiments many years ago, and they know how much (retardant) needs to be used in order to cover a certain area," said Steve Segin, public information officer for the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center helping to coordinate the fire response.
"If it's not going to work, we're not going to use it."
The flights are also dangerous to pilots as they navigate treacherous, smoke-covered terrain to carry out the drops.
Two men were killed in Colorado in 2002 when their four-engine air tanker broke apart and crashed during a wildfire season that was especially hazardous for pilots. Similar mishaps occur throughout the West during busy fire seasons.
Stahl said he does not believe any endangered or threatened wildlife are in danger from retardant in the blaze burning near Boulder. But he says that retardant isn't that productive in a fire such the one in Colorado, with powerful wind gusts that overwhelm the effort.
"Retardant does little against wind whipped fire — wind blows embers over the fire line," he said. "That's how the fire in Boulder is behaving, throwing embers every which way, which is what is primarily igniting the houses."
Proponents of its use say, while not always effective in windy conditions, retardant can buy valuable time for firefighters working on the ground.
"That's why we try to use it to buy time for ground crews, and to support ground crews and what they're doing," said Ken Frederick of the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. The center assigns the 19 heavy air tankers available in the U.S. for firefighting.
"It's a good tool, a very good tool, but it needs to be used in conjunction with ground forces," Frederick said.
Mark De Gregorio, spokesman for the interagency fire management team in Boulder, agreed. He insisted this week's retardant drops bolstered hand-cut fire lines in the Fourmile Canyon blaze.
"What it can do is buy you time to get engines and ground crews there," said De Gregorio, who has extensive experience as an air operations branch director on wildfires.
He added: "We certainly avoid dropping over any standing water or running water."