U.S. officials are testing a new wildfire retardant after two decades of buying millions of gallons a year from a single supplier, but watchdogs say the expensive strategy is too obsessed with aerial attacks at the expense of hiring more ground crews to dig in the lines of fire.
The Forest Service used more than 50 million gallons (190 million liters) of retardant for the first time in 2020 as increasingly destructive wildfires rage across the West. It topped 50 million gallons again last year to fight some of the largest and longest wildfires in history in California and other states. The cost of fire retardant in these two years has reached nearly $200 million.
In the previous 10 years, the agency used 30 million gallons (115 million liters) per year.
“No two wildfires are the same, and so it’s critical that fire managers have different tools for the different circumstances a fire may present,” the Forest Service said in an email. “Fire retardant is just one of those tools.”
The Forest Service said testing that began last summer is continuing this summer with a magnesium chloride-based retarder from Fortress.
Fortress claims its retardants are effective and better for the environment than products offered by Perimeter Solutions. This company claims that its ammonium phosphate retarders are superior.
Fortress started in 2014 with mostly former wildland firefighters who aimed to create a more effective fire retardant that was better for the environment. It has facilities in California, Montana and Wyoming and describes itself as the only alternative to fertilizer-based fire retardants.
The company is led by Chief Executive Bob Burnham, who began his career as a crew member fighting wildfires and eventually became a Type 1 Incident Commander, leading hundreds of firefighters against some of the biggest wildfires in the country. He often used planes to disperse plumes of red fire retardant, a decision he said he now questions after learning more about fertilizer-based retardants and developing a new retardant.
“This new fire retardant is better,” he said. “It will be much less damaging to our planet’s sensitive resources, and it will be much better fireproof on the ground.”
The main ingredient in Fortress products, magnesium chloride, is mined from the Great Salt Lake in Utah, a method and process the company says is kinder to the environment and produces less greenhouse gases. greenhouse as phosphate mining and processing. Last summer, the Forest Service tested the company’s FR-100, and this summer announced it would be testing a version called the FR-200.
Perimeter Solutions, which has facilities and equipment across the West, has gone through several name and ownership changes over the years, but has dominated the market for more than two decades. The company’s Phos-Chek LC-95A is the world’s most widely used flame retardant. The company is switching to a new retarder called Phos-Chek LCE20-Fx, which the company says is made from food-grade ingredients, making it a cleaner product.
“We are confident that the products we manufacture are the safest, most effective and environmentally friendly products available,” said Chief Executive Edward Goldberg. “We’ve spent decades partnering with the (Forest Service).”
Phosphate is mined in several places. Goldberg said they get phosphate both domestically, including from Idaho, and overseas. He declined to go into specifics, but said the company did not rely on China or Ukraine and replaced Russia and Belarus with other suppliers.
The Forest Service said testing this summer with the FR-200 will be limited to single-engine air tankers flying from an air tanker base in Ronan, Montana. This appears to be to prevent mixing of company retarders.
Two Forest Service watchdog groups argue that both types of retarders harm the environment and that the agency should spend less on retarders and more on firefighters.
Andy Stahl, executive director of the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and Timothy Ingalsbee, executive director of the United Firefighters for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, both said the phosphate-based retarder of ammonium is basically a fertilizer that can stimulate invasive plants. and is potentially responsible for some algal blooms in lakes or reservoirs as it flows downstream. They said the magnesium chloride retarder is essentially a salt that inhibits plant growth where it falls, possibly harming endangered species.
Both are concerned about direct impacts to waterways with either retardant and potential harm to aquatic species. Aircraft are generally limited to giving streams a 300-foot (90-meter) buffer from the retarder, but the Forest Service allows drops into the buffer under certain conditions, and they sometimes occur accidentally.
“Their theory is that it’s a war, and when you’re in a war, you’re going to have collateral damage,” Stahl said. “It’s the fire industrial complex, the nexus between business and government agencies combined, with really no interest in ending the war on wildfires. It’s increasingly important.”
Currently, much of the West is in drought. The National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho reports that so far this year there have been more than 31,000 wildfires that have burned about 5,000 square miles (13,000 square kilometers). That’s well above the 10-year average for the same period of about 24,000 wildfires and 2,000 square miles (5,000 square kilometers) burned.
Wildfire seasons have gotten longer as climate change has made the West much hotter and drier over the past 30 years, and scientists have long warned the weather will get wilder as that the world will warm up.