Environmentalists warn fire retardant may have toxic consequences

At least 141,000 gallons of fire retardant dropped

SAN DIEGO - In the effort to save homes and lives, more than 100,000 gallons of fire retardant were dropped during the fires in San Diego. Now, some environmentalists are warning that the retardant can have a dark side -- it's toxic in certain amounts and has the potential to kill fish and contaminate our waterways.

"Is it a problem? It's a big problem if [fire retardant] gets dropped in streams or creeks, or near them," said Andy Stahl with the Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. "This stuff is lethal to fish and we've had some real disasters in Southern California."

Stahl is referring to an accident in 2009 when fire retardant dropped near the Santa Ynez river in Santa Barbara the death of 50 protected steelhead trout.

"It just pretty much wiped out the whole creek," said Stahl.

Fire retardant contains ammonia and nitrates that can wreak havoc on waterways. The fire retardant we use is mixed in Ramona. The agricultural fertilizer contains ammonium phosphate, which is toxic to fish.

Reports show that after it's dropped, it can kill fish, stimulate the growth of aggressive non-native plants, and promote harmful algae blooms.

Stahl is with a group of Forest Service employees fighting for environmental safety. He brought two successful lawsuits against the government, resulting in a guideline that fire retardant must be dropped at least 300 feet away from waterways. However, Stahl told 10News that California is exempt from this rule -- unless the fire originates or is in a national forest.

"It feels like snot," said retired fire captain Bob Lyons. "It's kind of slippery, it's gooey and it sticks to things."

Lyons said that in his experience, despite windy conditions, firefighters try their best to avoid people, homes and waterways when making drops.

"It does have a salt content to it and it does have chemicals in it," said Lyons. "There've been a few cases where they've accidentally hit people. I mean, it's not an exact science."

Stahl said on average, half of the fire retardant dropped in the country is dropped in California. Stahl, along with other environmental advocates are now closely watching San Diego. He said fish are our canaries in a coal mine; they tell us how our waterways are doing.

"Water is the most important resource in Southern California and the one that you have the least of. So I would think everything San Diegans do should be focused around protecting the water supply," said Stahl.

10News spoke to Cal Fire Chief Kendal Bortisser about Cal Fire's view on their use fire retardants. He told 10News, "Life is priority number one, property is second and the environment is third. It hasn't changed for us and it never will."

Cal Fire estimates it's dropped at least 141,000 gallons of fire retardant, and it told 10News this figure actually represents a portion of what is likely a much larger number.

Professor Richard Gersberg, head of San Diego State University's Division of Environmental Health, said, "Life and property are first, but that doesn't mean the environment should be ignored."

Gersberg said beyond possible burns and skin irritation, the ammonium phosphate will likely not pose a threat to humans.

Stahl said he understands why this can be a sensitive topic. He fears that the deep appreciation we feel for our firefighters is clouding our judgment.

"Firefighters do a dirty and dangerous job and there's no question they put their lives on the line. And we as a society are reluctant to say, 'Sometimes what you're doing can do more harm than good.' But those are questions we need to be asking, we need to ask them respectfully, but we need to ask them," said Stahl.

There have been no reported fish kills in San Diego. Meanwhile, Stahl told 10News he's considering suing the state to force California to comply with federal environmental rules.

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