The War on Retardant

The War on Retardant.

By Jimmy Barnes


Environmental Non-Governmental Organizations, (NGOs) are launching attacks against government agencies for using fire retardants, dropped from aircraft, to control wildland fires.  It is their contention that the introduction of these chemicals into the echo system is harmful to the environment and the native species that thrive in them.  A special emphasis is placed on the potential harm to aquatic organisms in the streams and creeks that run through our forests and wildlands.  Their efforts have resulted in a Federal Judge ruling that the use of fire retardants is a violation of the “Endangered Species Act”.  This ruling could profoundly affect the way wildland fires are fought and greatly increase the potential for more large catastrophic fires like the one that occurred in the Oakland hills.


The advocates for halting aerial firefighting assert that there is no evidence that dropping retardant has played a significant role in stopping wildland fire.  They say that fire has always been with us and is a natural part of the ecology, essential for maintaining a healthy balance in our wildlands.


Their philosophy contains elements of truth however they do not account for many factors that now plague our modern world.  One Hundred years of successful fire suppression has produced fuel loads in our wildlands that are now dangerously out of balance.  Urban developments encroaching into the forested rural areas are now high value; high threat environments that generate more fires and complicate fire suppression efforts.  Global warming is beginning to influence the frequency and intensity of fires.  Large fires contribute tons of C02 and other greenhouse gasses into the atmosphere contributing to the escalating cycle of global warming.


These factors far outweigh the impact of retardant drops that contribute to a successful initial attack on fires that keep them below ten acres more than 90% of the time.  As it is with many things it is far easier to document a failure in fire fighting than it is to document a success. Documenting a success enters the realm of counterfactuals or what might have been if we hadn’t had air support on a fire.  Only the most uninitiated would claim that aerial fire suppression is ineffective.  Its real effect is documented in the minds of every Firefighter that has ever had to rely on tanker drops to help stop a wild fire.


The real effect of a burn down of hundreds or thousands of homes filled with house hold chemicals, electronic components, cars in the drive way, etc. is to precipitate an ecological disaster whenever a large fire occurs in what is now termed a “Wildland Urban Interface.  It is often the case that large stands of volatile fuels such as chaparral brush produce fire of such intensity that nothing is left but mineral soil. The stage is now set for mudslides and soil intrusion into the creeks and streams the next winter. Just the alkalinity and oxygen depletion in these waterways sterilize them of all aquatic life until long after those effects subside.  What a dramatic difference between this outcome and that of a few well-placed retardant drops that could have stopped the fire in the first place.


The most responsible approach is to fight fire effectively using an aggressive initial attack strategy to keep small fires small.  Use the tools that are proven to be effective in a way that minimizes any negative effects to the environment.  Manage the fuels in our rural areas and wildlands to defuse the explosive fire behavior that results from ignoring the threat.


  1. Jerome says:

    Well said Jimmy!

  2. davidcant says:

    Great narrative! Aggressive and early initial attack with aircraft has proven to be such an effective model here in South Autralia that at one stage local firefighters were complaining that the new generation of bushfire fighters were not getting enough major fire experience!

    The problem here is lack of evidence. We need better means of recording and demonstrating the merits of early initial attack. Comments from airbases boasting they have mixed records amount of retardant on a huge fire that is yet to be contained hardly supports the responsible use of chemicals by the fire services in the environment we are tryin to protect.

  3. Walt Darran says:

    Good points by both David & Jimmy.

    For more info on Fire Chemicals and their application go to “Aerial Firefighting” in the middle of the red toolbar at the top of the homepae, then select “Fire Chemicals” from the drop-down menu. There are several product brochures, plus an excellent .pdf presentation by Eddie Goldberg (ICL), one of the best given at Tangent Link at Aix-en-Provence.

  4. Jerome says:

    David said :” The problem here is lack of evidence. We need better means of recording and demonstrating the merits of early initial attack. ”


    The fire burnt 5 acres and got contained by Initial Attack. no big deal..YEAH, REALLY!? But the POTENTIAL was 200! 500! 1000 acres! or more… So the 5, 10 acres victories look almost irrelevant.. but they save potentially thousands acres !
    So I say, IA and Tactical Spread are the best investments you can make.. even if it appears costly.

    Unfortunately(to my humble knowledge) we don’t invest in tools, equipment that would describe the potential for each fire. This Data based on fuel conditions, terrain, wind, road access, distance/time with water/Retardant sources, number of aircraft, type, etc…. Would really help to convince Tax Payers the money is well spent… Or how we could improve the system…

    As an OV-10 Air Tactical pilot out of Chico I created a chart and entered all these items after every flight. Got lost in the wind I suppose…

    It could be a mission for a dedicated airplane flying all the IA fires the next day with Fire Mapping, pictures and all sort of Data gathered.

    End of the year report would be interesting…. And certainly reinforce the IA concept.


  5. Dale Head says:

    Interesting idea Jerome…

  6. Walt Darran says:

    Some interesting products are available:

    CARSON CITY — Is it the next breakthrough in firefighting? Makers of a polymer gel say so. Thursday firefighters from Carson City and Lake Tahoe were intentionally setting fires to test out ‘FireIce.’

    FireIce is a powder that becomes a gel when water is added, and the makers say it can help stop fires, and coat buildings to protect them.

    “It’s basically a polymer-based it’s basically like a sponge so what happens when you wet a sponge it absorbs water,” Rob Rosovich of FireIce said.

    Firefighters did a test that showed FireIce performed similarly to foam being used now. However, the product’s makers say it’s much better for the environment and is non-toxic. While grants could help pay for the substance, Carson City Fire Chief Stacey Giomi says equipment would need modified to use it.

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