Environmental questions re: fire fighting

  1. Are some parts of the California fires close enough the coast that seawater could be used to fight them? Would that be an ecological disaster?

  2. What are the firefighting chemicals dumped from planes? What do they do to the soil and groundwater?

  3. How often is brush/deadfall cleared in California to help prevent fires?

Colorado mountains here. We can see the smoke. It’s just hazy.

Regarding the chemicals. I think what you are seeing is dye mixed with the water. This is just used as an indicator for the pilots to see where the last drop was.

Risky business.

There was some recent discussion here: Salt water fire drops - Factual Questions - Straight Dope Message Board

I could be wrong, but I was under the impression that the red stuff is some sort of a fire retardant foam that they are using to contain the fire.

The red stuff dropped by tankers used to be borate. IIRC it was found that borate sterilised the soil, so fertilising fire-retartant chemicals are used now. (I don’t know what they are.)

The two main manufacturers of aerial fire retardant are FireTrol and Phos-Chek. From Phos-Chek’s FAQ:


St. Urho
former USFS wildland firefighter

Phos-Chek! :smack: I’d heard of that one, but it didn’t come to mind.

On the first day of the Malibu fire I saw news footage of a helicopter scooping sea water and dumping on the fire. It looked black when it was released.

I have no idea of the environmental impact.

In some areas, basically never. Property owners are normally allowed to maintain a defensible perimeter around structures, but they can’t just clear-cut their land and scrape it down to bare dirt to the property lines. IIRC, this was a particularly contentious point brought up during the fire near Lake Tahoe earlier this year as much of the affected land was national forest, and the homeowners had not been allowed to clear out the fallen trees and duff.

Of course, in a firestorm, twenty feet clear space between the trees and your house won’t mean squat to the flames.

Every so often, the CDF and/or local fire agencies will do “prescribed burns” but they seem to have a fairly bad record of getting out of control, based on how often they come up in the news.

As for dropping seawater, well, it’s wet, isn’t it? If they can avoid using it, they will, as it’s more corrosive to the tanks and pumps than lake water.

Many of the fires in southern California this year, and almost every year there are fires, are in national forests.

For example, the fire in Orange County is adjacent to and moving into the Cleveland National Forest. The fires in the Lake Arrowhead area are in the San Bernardino National Forest. Clearing of brush in such places is the responsibility of the US Forest Service. I think their only clearing method is by controlled burns and, as was noted above, those get away from time to time and so aren’t used much.

The general forest management as I understand it these days is to leave the forest alone. If firest start in remote areas they are usually allowed to burn with fire fighting restricted to protecting structures.

For example, some years ago a fire started in the wilderness area around Mt. Whitney. It was at high altitude, like 10000 ft., so there wasn’t much oxygen or fuel and it was allowed to burn until it finally died out by itself.

Going through some of David’s old posts I thought I would add my 2 cents here and there.

The above question opens a whole can-o-worms and all of the above comments are absolutely correct. This subject is a pet peeve of mine so being a Mountain man and living in a National Forest in the San Bernardino Mountains for 35 years, I’m going to get on my soap box. I have felt this way for 20 years now and have been in many a battles with tree huggers on this and only now in the last few years is the USFS seeing the truth in all this.

Only in the last few years have they started brush clearance and dead tree removal but only in selected areas and they are still not going far enough with it. For the last 100 years since USFS came into existence they had a policy of protection and suppression. That caused heavily overgrown forests. Then they decided to let forest fires burn and “take their course” in the last 20 years but that in most cases backfired and the fires got so out of control it took weeks and months to get a handle on them. Also some homes were lost when they crept into those areas. So the policy changed back to suppression. The problem now is there are forests that have not been burned or thinned in the last 100 years and are so over grown they are time bombs ready to explode! A healthy forest has 40 to 60 trees per acre. There are areas where I live that have upwards of 600 trees per acre. The USFS has cleared some areas but they are only getting under brush and dead trees. They need to take it one step further and THIN the trees! The Bark Beetle outbreaks in the drought years have helped but that was scary when we had all these dried dead trees ready to explode during the Old Fire. They have done a good job getting rid of those dead trees but what I don’t understand is while they were in there and cutting why not do some thinning at the same time? I’m not sure there is anybody that could make the decision on which tree to cut down. All these years of “protection”. Nature did quite the tree thinning during these last few years and the USFS has spent Millions on taking out the dead trees. There is a program now that will reimburse homeowners to thin the trees on their property (its about time) But that still leaves all of the over grown time bombs ready to blow. In the past few years we have seen what happens when these bombs go off especially where I live.

Now the USFS knows what the problems are and the mistakes they made but there is no funding to fix it. 100 years of suppression and neglect, it will take billions to bring our forests back into a healthy state. Fire is natures way of cleansing the forest. But when suppressed there needs to be other steps taken and we have failed to do that. Now we spend millions fighting fires, and cuts are being made there too. We just heard that 2 C-130 are grounded for this fire season due to lack of funding, Thanks a lot Bush! Sen. Feinstein is hot and sending letters and lobbyists to capital hill as we speak.

In the Lake Arrowhead area in years past every tree was protected by the architect al committee and people have been sued for cutting down trees to “open up the view” of the lake. We see what the result of that was just recently during the Grass fire. There are “red zones” in parts of Lake Arrowhead that fire fighters will not go into, too dangerous. They have changed this policy recently but is it too late? More trees need to be taken to save the overall health of this forest.