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"Catastrophic": Aerial fire retardant lawsuit could change how California fights wildfires

Lawsuit could change how California fights wildfires
Lawsuit could change how California fights wildfires 02:52

SACRAMENTO -- A federal judge heard oral arguments in a U.S. District Court for the District of Montana on a case over aerial fire retardants that could change the way California fights wildfires. 

The lawsuit, filed by Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics (FSEEE), is aimed at curbing the Forest Service's use of aerial fire retardants that are used in firefighting. The suit says that the federal agency pollutes waterways when the retardants are dumped from above national forests without permits, violating the Clean Water Law. 

The suit asks a federal judge to rule on an injunction that would keep the Forest Service from making aerial fire retardant drops until it receives a Clean Water Act permit. This process could take more than two years, according to the former director of Cal Fire. 

"Very strategic use of the resource. Many of those resources wouldn't be available if the federal air tankers were shut down," said Ken Pimlott, former Cal Fire director. 

Greg Bolin, the mayor of Paradise, which saw one of the deadliest and most devastating wildfires in 2018's Camp Fire, said the lawsuit is "callous" for homeowners and citizens who have experienced a wildfire. 

"They are saying that people's lives are not that important. They want to save a few fish than people's homes, and lives, and belongings… it's a callous way to come at this thing. It's hurtful." said Bolin. 

In a statement, the president and CEO of CalForests called the lawsuit's implications "catastrophic." 

"Today's oral arguments conveyed a salient fact: fire retardants have played an integral role in stopping some of the most devastating wildfires in recent history — saving lives, businesses, and property. If this important tool is taken away at the federal level, the real-life consequences will be catastrophic. 

State agencies' resources would be stretched far too thin, allowing wildfires to burn hotter and for longer periods of time — putting the lives of firefighters and residents of nearby communities at risk. Over the years, we would likely see our air quality continue to worsen with toxic smoke paired with a dwindling tree population that produces clean air. As businesses burn, jobs would be lost and local economies would struggle. The list goes on and on, which is why I hope the Court ensures we never have to live in that reality," said Matt Dias, President and CEO of Calforests.  

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