Killing more than flames 

The unintended consequences of suppression

As of press time, wildfires had burned close to 5.2 million acres nationwide, and 589,729 acres in Montana, so far in 2007. Last week the Montana Legislature convened a special session to figure out how to pay for the state’s share of the firefighting bills, appropriating $82 million for firefighting costs for the remainder of this year and 2008. Meanwhile, the federal government may spend more than $1 billion nationally combating fire this year alone.

Until now, most of the seasonal media attention has been focused on property losses and the budgetary impacts of battling blazes across the West. But the ecological costs of firefighting are often overlooked, says Andy Stahl, executive director of the Eugene,
Ore.-based watchdog group Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE). A 2005 lawsuit filed against the Forest Service by Stahl’s organization has recently directed attention to some of those costs.

In 2002, a U.S. Forest Service plane accidentally dropped more than 1,000 pounds of fire retardant into the Fall River near Bend, Ore. As a result, more than 22,000 fish were killed, and the ill effects linger today. In 2003, FSEEE sued the Forest Service over its use of the potentially toxic fire retardant, arguing that the agency should complete a National Environmental Policy Act analysis on the use of retardant. In 2005 Missoula-based U.S. District Court Judge Don Molloy agreed, and ordered the agency to complete the analysis within 18 months. That never happened, and last month Molloy ordered the Forest Service to complete the analysis by Oct. 15. Otherwise, Molloy threatened, he would hold U.S. Department of Agriculture Undersecretary Mark Rey in contempt of court, with possible consequent jail time. (Rey has said the study will be complete and no jail time will be necessary).

Stahl says he hopes the outcome of the case will have an impact on the way the agency manages forest fires altogether.

“We are advocating for a more judicious use of fire retardant, and inextricably linked to that, more judicious and thoughtful firefighting,” Stahl says. “We’re using fire retardant as a lever to get at the issue that underlies the so-called forest health crisis, which is too much fire suppression.”

Stahl says if there truly is a “forest health crisis,” it’s due to the fact that fire has been removed from ecosystems. And, Stahl says, fire suppression techniques themselves can have adverse, long-term impacts that are rarely discussed once the smoke has cleared.

In the case of fire retardant, the slurry commonly used is composed of 85 percent water, 10 percent fertilizer in the form of ammonia phosphate and sulfate ions, and five percent minor ingredients such as iron oxide for color, clay or bentonite. If you looked up at Mount Jumbo earlier this summer you might have seen bright green swaths where slurry bombers dumped retardant on last year’s July 4 blaze. That’s because the plants received a big boost of fertilizer. Such boosts can be detrimental to native species.

“Those plants that are best able to exploit that sudden influx of nutrients and flourish are usually noxious, unwanted exotic weeds,” Stahl says.

But fire retardant is just one example of the dozens of negative impacts fire suppression can impose on ecosystems. Another issue often overlooked by the general public is the impact of road and fire line building on forests.

“Firefighters essentially build roads, but they do it without engineering, without careful planning,” Stahl says.

A 2004 study in the journal Conservation Biology, entitled “Impacts of Fire-Suppression Activities on Natural Communities,” found that “Increased erosion is a common result of fire-suppression efforts.” 

According to the researchers, “Bulldozer-constructed fire lines may produce severe erosion, even to the point that the fire line produces more erosion than the fire itself…The resulting transport of sediment may cause long-term damage to aquatic ecosystems.”

Researchers also found that disturbances created by wildfire suppression, from fire camps, helibases, incident command posts and fire lines “foster a strong potential for the introduction and spread of invasive species…For example, bulldozed plots in Glacier National Park had a greater composition and cover of non-native species than either the undisturbed or burned plots.”

Gerald Marks, Missoula County agent for Montana State University Extension, confirms those findings in an interview with the Independent. He says areas of disturbed soil—such as newly punched-in roads—provide optimal vectors for noxious weed invasion.

“We’ve seen time and time again where roads and trails are pushed in and take out existing plant communities,” Marks says. “Knapweed is what we call a ‘road weed’ because it readily moves into those kinds of sites. It likes the hot, dry sites. It’s drought tolerant and so it quickly dominates those types of sites.”

Marks says post-fire rehabilitation and revegetation programs can help reduce the spread of invasive weeds, but the 2004 “Impacts” study found programs like Burned Area Emergency Rehabilitation and Emergency Stabilization and Rehabilitation have had mixed results. Those programs often rely on cheap, readily available non-native grasses such as ryegrass—which can easily be spread by airplanes—to revegetate hillsides to prevent erosion and slow the spread of weeds. Research has found that those grasses tend to suppress the establishment and growth of native vegetation, too, “potentially retarding the long-term recovery of the ecosystem.”

Rey recently told reporters the Forest Service has to balance so many factors that it’s bound to draw criticism over how it fights fires. It’s a Catch-22 that some critics think the agency could minimize by fighting fewer fires on fewer acres of public lands.

“Firefighting itself has the unintended consequence of disrupting the natural ecosystem,” Stahl says.
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