The proposed limits are intended to reduce drops on and near waterways, where they can kill fish, and to slightly expand the acreage that is off limits to retardant releases for ecological reasons.The U.S. Forest Service is weighing tighter restrictions on aerial fire retardant drops as part of a long-running legal battle over the environmental effects of pouring millions of gallons of the chemical mixture on Western wildlands every year.
Retardant use has soared in recent decades as wildfires have grown larger and more houses have been built on the wildland edge. Nationally, federal and state agencies apply an average of more than 28 million gallons a year, the vast majority of it in the West and much of that in California.
Nearly a third of the retardant used by the Forest Service in the last decade has been in California, where urban development abuts fire-prone wildlands and weather and terrain regularly produce monster blazes.
The proposed limits, outlined in a recently released environmental document, are not expected to cut overall usage. Rather, they are intended to reduce drops on and near waterways, where they can kill fish, and to slightly expand the acreage that is off limits to retardant releases for ecological reasons.
The draft guidelines follow two court decisions that forced federal agencies to reexamine the environmental effects of retardants and the steps that can be taken to minimize harm to endangered species.
"We made a concerted effort to address [the court's] concerns," said Glen Stein, who oversaw the environmental review.
Forest Service guidelines adopted in 2000 bar retardant drops within 300 feet of a body of water. But there are several exceptions: Pilots can release a load over a stream or lake zone if it's necessary to protect life, property or because of terrain limitations.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, which annually applies an average of 5 million to 6 million gallons of retardant, roughly twice as much as what the Forest Service drops in the state, also follows the 2000 regulations.
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