What’s that red stuff dropped from the sky?
By Bert Raynes, Jackson Hole, Wyo.
Date: September 19, 2012
One of the first tasks the firefighting planes undertook last week when the fire erupted near Horsethief Canyon in Jackson Hole was to lay down a continuous line of red slurry retardant in open terrain, a kind of defensible limit to fire attempting to go west. Additionally, the resulting red line surely was a guide to pilots on subsequent flights. The color will go away; after six days, it’s still visible.
The slurry retardant mixture is about 85 percent water. The remainder is ammonium phosphates, suspension agents, corrosion inhibitors, thickeners and, of course, a choice of coloring agent. It’s a retardant, not a direct extinguishing agent.
Red fire retardant is familiar to TV watcher: The sight of an airborne tanker swooping low over or near some inferno and dropping vivid red slurry from its belly makes for good television, as they said. The mere sight says the fire is being fought. It’s action.
It also — particularly the ammonium phosphates — has critics. They contend the retardants don’t fight fires, but, once they reach soil or foliage and react with water, they release nitrogen and phosphates that fertilize plants that can encourage invasive noxious weeds or pose risks to threatened or endangered plants.
Very little goes unchallenged these days. Ammonium phosphates have been used to fight forest fires from the air for close to 50 years. One might think the pros and cons concerning their effectiveness and drawbacks would be known by now and a conclusion or a resolution would be reached.
Obviously, conclusions and resolutions are hard to come by in recent days. We blunder through somehow. And I didn’t hear anybody complain about red fire repellent (or this and that about it) last week. I’d say that slurry has won at this point.
Firefighters in the air and on the ground deserve thanks from the rest of us. Men and women of courage and skill.
I cannot say that the persistent and sometimes heavy smoke Jackson Hole has seen and is still seeing has affected our wildlife in any obvious ways. Unless, of course, directly threatened by flames. I didn’t think animals would spook because of smoke; they evolved with fire.
It’s another story for animals that can’t outrun flames. Those that burrow or hide somehow are in potential danger. For one thing, should they survive the flames, their normal cover may be lost, exposing them to predators. That’s why some raptors and owls fly to the edges of fires in response to smoke. Certain woodpecker species, also.
Back to the fire repellent topic for a moment: Watching the demonstrations in so many Middle Eastern countries on TV, one wishes that all U.S. American flags sold overseas be coated with fire repellent. Preferably one that emits a foul odor if sufficiently heated. One gets weary of seeing our flag set aflame or otherwise disrespected.
Field Notes: Fire in the back 40 does concentrate the mind. It will be interesting to see what unexpected and persistent effects human activity has on wildfire-affected forests. Fire, smoke, air drops, day and night human presence ... break in the routine. Wonder if some red retardant-spotted elk might wander down to the valley floor.
Bruce Hayse and Loy Kiefling each report evening grosbeaks back to town. Loy has been impressed by flocks of robins gleaning berries and fruits, many pine siskins and the return of “her” sharp-shinned hawk. A single nighthawk (Susan Patla), a lone turkey vulture, flights of flocks of geese, September.
Should you be out and about in the woods on any of numerous pursuits, keep an eye out for a couple of very large woodpeckers. Last seen at dusk on Sept. 9 in the Gros Ventres at about 9,500 feet above Crystal Creek. Two “giant” woodpeckers first heard hammering away then spotted high in an evergreen. No color could be made out.
The notion that these birds are pileated woodpeckers is tantalizing (Bruce Hayse, Susan Bullock). There are almost no sightings of pileateds in this region, although the Hole isn’t too far from the bird’s published range.
Another big black bird to look for these days is turkey vulture. Once a rare sight in Jackson Hole, the turkey vulture can now be seen in groups at times. An activity timed to bison hunting?
© Bert Raynes 2012
Bert Raynes writes weekly on whatever suits his fancy with a dash of news on nature and its many ways.