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 environment-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.
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.