Wednesday May 10, 2023

High Country News

On a hot, dry August day in 2002, air tankers swooped over a small wildfire south of Bend, Oregon. The Forest Service hoped to suppress the flames by dropping over a thousand pounds of fire retardant on and around the fire — but the pilots missed. Instead, the neon-red liquid cascaded into the nearby Fall River, a tributary of the Deschutes. Soon after, at least 22,000 trout died — virtually all the fish living in a six-mile stretch. 

Retardant contains ammonium phosphate, which is highly toxic to fish and other aquatic life. In the years following the accident, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), a Eugene, Oregon-based nonprofit that represents former and current Forest Service employees, has called for policy changes regarding the use of retardant. The group has won two lawsuits against the Forest Service restricting its use and is now suing the agency over employing it in and around streams and creeks. The suit has reignited debates over retardant’s firefighting efficacy, and the outcome could change how it is used in the future.

In a suit filed in Montana’s Federal District Court last October, FSEEE argued that fire retardant is a pollutant, so the Forest Service needs a Clean Water Act permit if it flows into waterways. The agency is now working with the Environmental Protection Agency to get the appropriate federal and state permits, but that process will take at least two years.

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