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article imageRecord amount of retardant used on growing Calif. wildfire

By Karen Graham     Sep 20, 2014 in Environment
As of Friday night, the King wildfire in Northern California had burned 76,376 acres. Officials with CalFire and the U.S. Forest Service say the massive fire, one of nine in the state, is only 10 percent contained.
On Saturday, fire spokesman Mike McMillan said that a number of structures have been destroyed in the fire, but due to the still fast-moving blaze, it has been nearly impossible to get teams into the burned area to assess the damage.
Overnight, the fire has spread an additional six square miles, consuming grass, brush and large stands of timber, as over 5,000 firefighters work to contain the blaze. With temperatures expected to be in the upper 80's over the weekend, and dry conditions remaining, pollution levels in many areas of the Sierra Nevada west of Lake Tahoe will remain at the "hazardous" level, a category rarely seen.
MODIS-aqua satellite view of the smoke from the #KingFire across the Sacramento valley and adjacent ...
MODIS-aqua satellite view of the smoke from the #KingFire across the Sacramento valley and adjacent foothills.
NASA
Of concern to meteorologists are the shifting wind patterns. Conditions Thursday and Friday pushed a lot of the smoke to the south, but a weak low-pressure system in the middle of the state is expected to turn the smoke back toward the north again. Of additional concern are cooler night temperatures, which tend to push smoke down into the lower elevations and impact places as far away as Sacramento, 60 miles to the west.
Record amounts of retardant being used
Firefighters have used more than half-a-million gallons of fire retardant on the conflagration, according to fire spokesperson Lynne Tolmachoff. That amount includes the use of 203,000 gallons on one single day. The retardant is a mix of water and fertilizer, with a red ye added, and is used primarily as an initial attack tool to give firefighters time to get to the scene to dig fire lines.
Fire-retardant being dumped on the Weed fire.
Fire-retardant being dumped on the Weed fire.
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But with the fire being so out of control, it has been pushing through the lines. "They can slow it down a little bit. But they're not able to hold it long enough to get ground units in there to extinguish it before it burns through and continues its path," Tolmachoff said.
The King fire, which authorities say was deliberately set, is one of the most formidable of Califormia's wildfires. Earlier last week, the Bolles fire burned at least 150 homes and other structures in Weed, and the Courtney fire in Madera County destroyed about 50 more homes.
Although firefighters have used the fire-retardant since the 1950s, its use is still controversial because of its effects on wildlife. The U.S. Forest Service had to adjust its criteria for using fire-retardants recently because of lawsuits alleging the drops had killed fish, damaged watersheds and threatened endangered species.
Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics, says the intended use for a fire-retardant is to attack a "very remote fire" until crews could get to the blaze. "But now we're seeing a dramatic increase in the amount of retardant being dumped because we're not just using it in those remote wilderness areas, but we're using it on every fire, everywhere, and there are more fires," he said.
King fire spreads to Placerville  California on Sept. 17  2014.
King fire spreads to Placerville, California on Sept. 17, 2014.
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Of the 12 million gallons of fire-retardant used last year nationwide on fires, over 60 percent was dumped on California fires, said Stahl. Federal restrictions on its use don't apply to California firefighters, and there has been a significant increase in its use over the past 10-years.
Tolmachoff says she doesn't know how much retardant her agency used last year, but defended its use. She said the expanded use of fire-retardants was necessary because of bigger DC-10 air tankers, expanding populations in fire-prone areas and the increasing size and frequency of fires caused by drought.
More about King wildfire, California, spread overnight, hazardous smoke, fire retardant
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