Fire Retardant Air Drops Under Fire

An interesting case is
brewing in California over the use of aircraft deployed fire retardant. It seems
some steelhead trout were killed in the Jesusita Fire in May, 2009, and the
culprit is alleged to be the fire retardant.

What is unusual about the
story isn’t that some fringe environmental group is upset about something that
seems pretty reasonable to most people. That’s not news. What is unusual is who
is complaining: an environmental group of Forest Service employees, known as Forest
Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE).

The Forest Service is one of
the largest firefighting forces in the world, with a hard-nosed tradition that
can match that of any structure fire department.
it’s rather shocking to learn that FSEEE filed notice on December 16, 2009 to sue the California
Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) and the Santa Barbara
County Fire Department to enforce the Endangered Species Act (ESA, codified in 7
U.S.C. § 136 and 16 U.S.C. § 1531). Apparently steelhead trout are endangered.

The Jesusita Fire burned 8700
acres and destroyed 80 homes in Santa Barbara County. No too suprisingly, there’s some pretty nasty comments being made about the suit in the Santa Barbara press. Take a
look at a few of the citizen’s posts at the end of this story in the Santa Barbara Independent.

Incidentally, I just
finished reading The Big Burn, by Tomothy Egan, about the horrific Northwest
wildfire of 1910. Egan recounted numerous reports of dead trout after the fire,
even though no one had even contemplated using aircraft to drop fire retardant, nor using fire retardant on wildland fires.

About Curt Varone

Curt Varone has over 40 years of fire service experience and 30 as a practicing attorney licensed in both Rhode Island and Maine. His background includes 29 years as a career firefighter in Providence (retiring as a Deputy Assistant Chief), as well as volunteer and paid on call experience. He is the author of two books: Legal Considerations for Fire and Emergency Services, (2006, 2nd ed. 2011, 3rd ed. 2014) and Fire Officer's Legal Handbook (2007), and is a contributing editor for Firehouse Magazine writing the Fire Law column.
  • John K. Murphy

    It’s difficult to comment on this story as it is beyond the absurd.
    In Washington State several years ago there was a seal named Hershel (sp) that was eating massive amounts of steelhead swimming up the Ballard Locks in Seattle to spawn. As seals are federally protected, Hershel was trapped and transported to California. Soon enough and after a few weeks, Hershel shows up again to munch on some more steelhead. After thousands of dead fish, Hershel was again trapped and transported to Florida where he was a long term guest of the local aquarium.
    The point here is there is a balancing act. Are steelhead an endangered species like seals or are they an endangered species like the people affected by uncontrolled wildland fires in California. It would seem appropriate that the hardworking men and women of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE)would put their efforts into preventing wildland fires and protecting people instead of fish.
    Steelhead in Washington are a sport fish and there have been periodic efforts to control the “taking” of that species so they may repopulate and reopen the fishing season to include steelhead. After the removal of the seal, the fish population has regenerated itself and the fishermen and fisherwomen (if there is such a term) are pleased.

  • ukfbbuff

    This really seems like a stupid issue to be crying about.

    While the fire retardant- a fettilizer dyed pink, for visibility, may be toxic to fish, the over all benefit of reducing fire spread and in effect saving homes and making work easier for the ground firefirefighters, these USFS employees are wrong.

    Of course they probbly have not been on the wildland fireground in ears, but rather have office jobs.

    A waste of time and money.

    And  I was a "mud mixer" (mix fire retardant and load air tankers) for one fire season during the 1980's.


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