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California's fire season has begun as debate over wildfire retardant heats up


Climate change is bringing us longer and more severe wildfire seasons especially in the western U.S. A major tool in the fight against wildfires is a neon pink fire retardant dropped from planes. It's called Phos-Chek. Many fire crews insist it's indispensable, but critics say it's contaminating waterways and making it harder to fight future fires. Los Angeles Times reporter Hayley Smith is covering this debate and joins us now. Good morning, Hayley.

HAYLEY SMITH: Hi. Good morning. Thanks for having me.

SCHMITZ: Thanks for joining us. You describe Phos-Chek as a neon pink goo, a sticky slurry of ammonium phosphate that coats vegetation to deprive advancing flames of oxygen and that authorities swear by it. Help us understand how Phos-Chek works.

SMITH: Fire crews use it usually ahead of a fire to sort of slow the flames, and it allows crews time to move in and lay the containment lines and do what they need to do to stop the fire. But as you mentioned, some environmental groups and other critics have raised concerns about what all that sticky, pink sludge is doing to the plants and the other things that it's touching.

SCHMITZ: Well, what is it doing to the environment? And why are people worried about it?

SMITH: So there are a number of questions that have been raised about it. And there's also been some studies that have shown that it is harmful to fish and aquatic life, like endangered chinook salmon, when it gets into waterways. There's concern about its long-term effects on soils and insects and microbiology. And interestingly, it can also act as a fertilizer that actually encourages plants to grow, which could potentially create more fuel for fires in the next year.

SCHMITZ: So with this debate happening about Phos-Chek, do the benefits of this fire retardant outweigh the risks?

SMITH: I think it really depends on who you ask. If you're speaking to someone whose home or whose loved ones are in the path of a wildfire, they'd probably want you to use every tool at your disposal. But what these critics are saying is, hey, we're really dropping a lot of this stuff, and it lasts for a really long time. And it gets into waterways, and it's sticky. So maybe it's worthwhile to stop and just consider its potential ecological effects or downsides before we dump it all over everything.

SCHMITZ: And what does the manufacturer of Phos-Chek say? I mean, you know, obviously, this fire retardant is used for a reason. I would imagine it's been checked by environmental groups. I'm just curious to know what they're saying about this debate.

SMITH: Sure. I mean, they're understandably focused on its firefighting benefits. And in fact, Cal Fire, which is our state agency here in California, has dropped more fire retardant than water over fires in the last several years. Where I think it gets a little fuzzier is that the company is now pushing this new product, which is a roadside spray. And so unlike the spray that gets dropped from airplanes, they're actually proposing spraying this on vegetation along roadsides ahead of fire season. And it's meant to last for several months until the first big rainfall. And they're saying that it allows them to be more precise with where they put it and that it'll help prevent ignitions and stop fires from spreading. But again, that's raised some questions from the environmental groups.

SCHMITZ: Now, you're talking to folks who live in these areas where these fire retardants are used. What are they saying about it?

SMITH: I mean, I've heard from people on both sides of this. In San Diego, where officials are testing the roadside spray, one resident was really concerned that when it rains, it will run off into waterways and possibly end up in the ocean. But on the flip side, the mayor of Paradise, Calif., which had our deadliest-ever wildfire back in 2018, the Camp Fire, said banning retardant would put lives and homes at risk. So people have strong opinions about it on both sides.

SCHMITZ: So I understand there's a lawsuit also happening right now. A group known as the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics is suing the U.S. Forest Service over its use of Phos-Chek. What can you tell us about that?

SMITH: Yeah. So this group sued the Forest Service on the basis that its aerial drops are violating the Clean Water Act, which is the federal law that prohibits the discharge of pollutants into U.S. waters without a permit. And the judge in this case actually agreed with them and said, yes, dropping this spray from airplanes is violating the Clean Water Act. However, he also said banning the use of the material could conceivably result in greater harm from wildfires. So he ruled that the Forest Service can keep dropping the retardant while it works on getting a permit from the EPA.

SCHMITZ: That's LA Times reporter Hayley smith. Thanks, Hayley.

SMITH: Sure. Thanks for having me. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

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