Lawsuit Could End Fire Retardant Use

JEFFERSON COUNTY, Colo. --

The fire retardant dropped from air tankers to prevent wildfires from spreading may no longer be an option after 2011.

As many as nine air tankers have dropped retardant -- a mixture of water, fertilizer and red dye -- on both the Fourmile Canyon fire in Boulder County and the Reservoir Road fire in Larimer County. The retardant is used to build a perimeter around a fire and not dropped directly on the flames to put out the fire.

"It's not an extinguishment, it's a retardant. It's basically there to slow down and help the ground crews 100 percent," said David Stickler, a pilot for one of the lead planes that guides and acts as a lookout for an air tanker. "You want to stop it so when the fire's coming up towards the house, it's going to slow down at that point and let the ground firefighters get in there and knock it down the rest of the way."

A federal lawsuit filed in 2003 and another in 2008 by the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics calls into question the use of fire retardant. The lawsuit suggests the mixture jeopardizes fish, plants and other habitat.

"They basically haven't made a retardant that can put out a fire completely without harming the environment," said Stickler.

Stickler told 7NEWS that retardant can be harmful to certain fish, but that retardant is not dropped within 300 feet of a water source, unless an incident commander feels lives or property are at risk.

"For very, very, very small fish like minnows, that type of thing, you'll see that once it does get exposed to sunlight, those type of small fish, where they don't have the strength to defend, will actually start to perish at that point," said Stickler.

7NEWS asked if that's reason enough to stop using retardant.

"Actually, I've seen where you're getting more damage from ash going into the rivers than from the retardant going into the rivers," said Stickler. "We'll go out there a year afterwards and you'll see that the grass is really green there."

A federal judge has given the U.S. Forest Service until the end of 2011 to complete environmental studies on the impact of fire retardant, as well as coming up with alternatives to retardant. Otherwise, the use of fire retardant could end.

"Then we would be dropping (water) right on the fire, (which) is a completely different strategy. It's better to make it so we can have the fire come up to it and go out on its own," said Stickler. "We have used water drops in a lot of places, then we can go direct on the hits and stuff like that, but the effectiveness of that, with a large fire like (Fourmile Canyon and Reservoir Road are) very ineffective."

Air Tankers Aren't Based In Any One Area

"It was unbelievably lucky for the people in Loveland that these aircraft were here," said Rita Baysinger, public information officer with the Rocky Mountain Area Coordination Center.

There are 17 air tankers available nationwide to the U.S. Forest Service to drop fire retardant. When the Fourmile Canyon fire was reported on the morning of Sept. 6, air tankers didn't arrive in Colorado to drop retardant on the fire until the late afternoon. The Reservoir Road fire was reported Sunday morning and within two hours tankers were dropping retardant.

"This definitely was a best case scenario," said Baysinger about already having the tankers in Colorado. "There are just not enough tankers that any one area can just say, 'Well, we want to keep them all for ourselves.'"

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