Monday October 2, 2023


The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) invented fire retardant in the 1950s and for decades the agency has said it’s one of the most important tools to slow the progression of fast-moving wildfires. But when the bright red retardant, dropped from aircraft, accidentally misses the mark and ends up in waterways, it can be lethal to aquatic life, including salmon and steelhead on the endangered species list.

The retardant contains ammonium phosphate – a high source of elemental nitrogen used as an ingredient in certain fertilizers used by farmers. It’s also highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life.

Thousands of steelhead were killed in Omak Creek on the Colville Indian Reservation in Eastern Washington in two retardant drops that mistakenly landed in the water in 2001 and again in 2003. 

A decade before, the Confederated Tribes of the Colville Reservation began restoration efforts on the creek to rehabilitate historic steelhead and salmon spawning grounds. Fish populations were devastated  by the construction and operation of a timber mill in the 1920s. But the restoration project experienced a major setback with the retardant drops. According to the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, the mistakes by the Forest Service brought “catastrophic environmental harm” to the fragile creek.

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