Is aerial firefighting worth the expense and environmental damage?
That's the question on the minds of Forest Service fire management officials during a record breaking fire season. Cost is a big factor, with firefighting budgets for the year long since spent.
You've probably seen dramatic shots of planes dropping fire retardant, or slurry, on wildfires. While it may look like they are dousing the flames, they are not. Slurry is a fire retardant, only meant to slow and cool flames so fire crews on the ground can get closer and build fireline. Without someone on the ground, slurry is worthless.
There are many cases where slurry is ineffective, too, such as steep, inaccessible terrain and on windy days, when it just blows away. Often, by the time the decision is made to send slurry to fire, it's too late. Slurry will do nothing to stop a raging, fast moving conflagration.
Although slurry is basically a mixture of water and fertilizer (for plant regeneration down the road), it is detrimental to fish once it gets into streams and rivers. This is another cost to consider.
It's ironic that despite all of this, the public demands more aerial attacks, believing the Forest Service should be doing everything possible to contain fires. This is the same problem with the "Let it Burn" policy. It's hard to get people to understand that sometimes fire is good, and just because they don't see planes dropping slurry on a fire, it doesn't mean there's a problem.