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US tests new flame retardant, critics push for other methods

BOISE, Idaho — 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 fixated on airstrikes at the expense of hiring more ground crews to dig fire lines.

The Forest Service is using more than 50 million gallons (190 million liters) of retardant for the first time in 2020 as increasingly destructive wildfires plague the West. It topped 50 million gallons again last year to fight some of the largest and longest-running wildfires on record in California and other states. Fire suppression costs in those two years totaled nearly $200 million.

Over the previous 10 years, the agency had used 30 million gallons (115 million liters) annually.

“No two wildfires are the same, and that’s why it’s critical for fire managers to have different tools for different circumstances that a fire may arise,” the Forest Service said in an email. “The fire retardant is just one of those tools.”

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The Forest Service said tests that began last summer are continuing this summer with a magnesium chloride-based retardant from Fortress.

Fortress claims its retardants are effective and better for the environment than products offered by Perimeter Solutions. This company says its ammonium phosphate based retarders are better.

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 is described as the only alternative to fertilizer-based fire retardants.

The company is led by CEO Bob Burnham, who began his career as a shifty crew member fighting wildfires and eventually rose to become a Type 1 Incident Commander, directing hundreds of firefighters against some of the largest wildfires in the nation. He often called in airplanes to spray jets of red fire retardant, a decision he said he wonders about now that he’s learned more about fertilizer-based retardants and developed a new retardant.

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“This new flame retardant is better,” he said. “It will be much less damaging to our sensitive planetary resources and much more fire retardant on the ground.”

The main ingredient in Fortress products, magnesium chloride, is extracted from Utah’s Great Salt Lake, a method and process the company says is more environmentally friendly and produces fewer greenhouse gases than phosphate mining and processing. The Forest Service last summer tested the company’s FR-100, and this summer said it will test a version called the FR-200.

Perimeter Solutions, which has facilities and equipment throughout the West, has undergone a number of 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 most widely used flame retardant in the world. 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.

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“We are confident that the products we make are the safest, most effective and most environmentally friendly products,” said CEO Edward Goldberg. “We’ve spent decades partnering with (the Forest Service).”

Phosphates are mined in many places. Goldberg said they source phosphate both domestically, including from Idaho, and internationally. He declined to elaborate, but said the company did not rely on China or Ukraine and had switched other suppliers to Russia and Belarus.

The Forest Service said testing this summer with the FR-200 will be limited to single-engine air tankers flying out of an air tanker base in Ronan, Montana. This appears to prevent the companies’ retarders from being mixed up.

Two Forest Service watchdog groups say both types of retardant harm the environment and that the agency should spend less on retardant and more on firefighters.

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Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, and Timothy Ingalsby, executive director of Firefighters United for Safety, Ethics and Ecology, said the ammonium phosphate-based retardant is essentially a fertilizer that can encourage invasive plants and is potentially responsible for some algal blooms in lakes or reservoirs when washed downstream. They said the magnesium chloride-based retardant is essentially a salt that will inhibit plant growth wherever it lands, possibly harming endangered species.

Both are concerned about direct hits to waterways with retarder and potential harm to aquatic species. Aircraft are generally limited to giving streams a 300-foot (90-meter) buffer of retardant, but the Forest Service allows falls within the buffer under some conditions, and sometimes they happen by accident.

“Their theory is that this is war, and when you’re at war, you’re going to have collateral damage,” Stahl said. “It’s the fire-industrial complex, the nexus of corporate and government agencies thrown together with really no interest in ending the war on wildfires.” It is constantly increasing.”

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Much of the West is currently 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 are getting longer as climate change has made the West much warmer and drier over the past 30 years, and scientists have long warned that the weather will get wilder as the world warms.

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US tests new flame retardant, critics push for other methods

Source link US tests new flame retardant, critics push for other methods

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