WASHINGTON — Russ Seaton still remembers how Fall River looked, just after a U.S. Forest Service plane accidentally dropped more than a thousand pounds of fire retardant into the stream in 2002.
“It was almost a scene from a movie where an atomic nuclear attack had taken place,” said Seaton, who has guided fishing trips on the river for 13 years. “It brought tears to your eyes because it had been just teeming with life.”
Oregon Department of Fish and Wildlife biologist Ted Wise also recalled the scene of devastation, as 22,000 trout died.
“There were fish literally trying to crawl out of the river, it was a pretty stark situation,” Wise said.
Five years later, the river, located west of La Pine, is on the way back, but it isn’t the same stretch of water as the one where Seaton could guarantee his clients would catch a fish, he said.
And the potentially toxic retardant is under scrutiny again, with a federal judge ordering the Forest Service to finish a long-awaited environmental analysis of it within two months.
The case dates back to 2003, when the Eugene-based conservation group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics sued the Forest Service over its use of the potentially toxic fire retardant. The group argued the agency should complete an Endangered Species Act analysis of the retardant.
In 2005, a federal judge in Montana ordered the Forest Service to complete an environmental analysis of the retardant within 18 months. The Forest Service asked for more time on the day before the analysis was due, which the judge expressly asked the agency not to do.
So this past week, the judge ordered the Forest Service to complete the analysis within two months, or else he threatened U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey with contempt of court and possible time in jail.
On Thursday, Rey said the judge’s order required cooperation with multiple other federal agencies, which delayed the environmental analysis. He said the agency will meet the new deadline.
“We comply with judges’ orders in every instance, to the best of our abilities,” Rey said.
Rey defended the agency’s use of the retardant, which contains ammonium phosphate, as a necessary tool in fighting wildfires. But he acknowledged that some endangered fish have been killed as a result of its use.
“We believe that there are mitigating factors that we have employed to minimize the risk to fish, but there is a risk,” Rey said. “It is not something that we fly around the sky dumping willy-nilly.”
A toxic drop
The decision to use fire retardant is made by the people in the field fighting the fire, said Dave Zalunardo, temporary manager for the Redmond air tanker base with the Forest Service.
The fire retardant isn’t actually dropped on the fire itself, but is dropped from planes in front of the fire to slow it down. One of the main goals is to prevent fire from spreading toward structures, but it’s also helpful for containing small fires that are in remote locations, he said.
“You can hold that fire small and buy time to allow troops to get in,” Zalundardo said Friday.
On the day retardant landed in the Fall River in August 2002, the Oregon Department of Forestry was in charge of battling a small blaze near the fish hatchery. It had the potential for threatening structures.
Retardant hit the river, and the red liquid streamed down, killing off aquatic life within a roughly 4-mile stretch. The Fall River flows into the Deschutes River. Biologists said at the time they didn’t believe the Upper Deschutes was damaged by the incident.
There are different kinds of fire retardant, some deemed more environmentally friendly than others. The kind dropped in the Fall River was tested in laboratories by the U.S. Geological Survey. The agency found that, when combined with sunlight and water, it produced amounts of cyanide that exceeded Environmental Protection Agency guidelines for freshwater organisms.
Zalunardo said the chemical that becomes cyanide when mixed with sunlight and water is no longer a component of the retardant firefighters now use, so direct poisoning of aquatic life isn’t a problem. Although the fertilizer component of the retardant could lead to high nutrient levels if it entered water bodies, he said.
Planes flying out of the Redmond air tanker base drop an average of about 600,000 gallons of fire retardant a year, he said. However, in 2006 more than twice that amount was used on fires, and so far this summer a little over 430,000 gallons has been dropped on fires.
On the path to recovery
On the Fall River, nature is getting help in recovering from Oregon’s aggressive fish stocking program. The fish are still not staying in the river, or reaching the size they did before retardant drop, said Wise and Seaton. Indeed, Wise estimated it could be 20 years before the aquatic insects and habitat reach their previous condition.
But Seaton, who works at Fly and Field Outfitters in Bend, said things are slowly getting better.
“I’m still catching fish down there, the past couple of years have been better.”
No endangered species were killed in the Fall River, Wise said. The river, which is stocked by a hatchery, contained mostly brown trout, red band trout, brook trout and white fish.
“Fall River was just provided as one example of environmental effects of retardant drops,” said Andy Stahl, Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics executive director.
Stahl said his group has documented more than six instances of endangered fish being killed by fire retardant. An accidental retardant drop in 2002 on Street Creek, near Lake Billy Chinook, killed a small number of endangered bull trout, Wise said.
Rey said the Forest Service has to balance so many factors – firefighter safety, protecting homes and animals – that it is bound do draw criticism over how it fights fires.
“You’re dealing with a force of nature and nature doesn’t always do what you’d expect it to,” he said.