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Paul Wellman (file)

Firefighting Under Fire

Environmental Group May Sue Fire Agencies for Retardant Drops That Killed Steelhead


Though the flames of the Jesusita Fire burned out long ago, the firefighting agencies who battled it are now under attack again, this time by an environmental group that claims the use of airplane-dropped fire retardant killed dozens of endangered steelhead trout.

Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE) - an environmental nonprofit focused on protecting whistle-blowers and pushing reform of the Forest Service’s land use policy - filed a notice with the U.S. Department of Commerce on December 16 that it plans to file suit against the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection and the Santa Barbara County Fire Department. FSEEE maintains that the two fire protection agencies used a toxic flame retardant material that killed endangered steelhead trout during the Jesusita Fire last May.

In accordance with the Endangered Species Act, FSEEE must wait 60 days before it can file a lawsuit. “That is to give the Department of Commerce an opportunity to do what this lawsuit would do, and that is enforce the Endangered Species Act,” said Andy Stahl, FSEEE’s executive director. “This lawsuit goes forward only if the government chooses not to enforce this law.”

Jesusita Fire
Click to enlarge photo

Paul Wellman (file)

Jesusita Fire

It all started a few days after the Jesusita Fire had torn through the area around Robert Bjorklund’s land along upper Maria Ygnacio Creek. Having found a number of dead steelhead trout in the creek that runs through his property, he called for help.

In a report on his investigation of the creek on May 11, 2009 - the creek was by then a milky color - Mark Capelli, a recovery coordinator from the National Marine Fisheries Service, said that he observed 30 dead steelhead. Stahl said that in a follow-up on that investigation, a UCSB ecology professor recorded ammonia level in the water 100 times higher than normal.

A spokesperson from the Santa Barbara County Fire Department said that although County Fire works with Cal Fire and other agencies during wildland fire suppression efforts, the county itself does not use flame retardant.

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