After Wildfires, What Happens to Fire Retardant-Soaked Crops?
Nov 2, 2017 at 11:00am
Julie Cart, CALmatters
The full extent of the damage from the northern California wildfires that killed 43 people and destroyed 8,400 homes is still being tallied, but not all the damage is visible.
Among the assessments still to be made is what impact millions of gallons of fire retardant—essentially a potent fertilizer—may have on carefully tended plants and soils.
Saved by timing, nearly 80 percent of the renowned wine region’s grapes had been harvested when the multiple fires started in early October. And for the most part, the blazes did not linger at the vineyards, which are kept free of grasses and other fire-devouring fuels.
But there was collateral damage: bright red slathers of fire retardant dropped from the state’s fleet of supertankers. In one week, more than 2 million gallons of retardant were dropped in California—a record, according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.
The retardant, called Phos-Chek, contains ammonium phosphate, a fertilizer. It also includes chemicals to regulate how the slurry drops, emulsifiers that render it gooey so it sticks to targets, and a coloring agent so air crews can track what they’ve dropped. For the most part, the ingredients are disclosed to Cal Fire by the Phos-Chekmanufacturer, ICL-Performance Products, LP.
The chemicals are mixed with water and are generally harmless to humans and most animals, according to the company. But retardants are known to be toxic to fish, so state and national fire-fighting agencies prohibit drops within 300 feet of water sources.
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