The massive King wildfire is burning so explosively because of the prolonged drought that firefighters are finding normal amounts of retardant aren’t stopping the flames. And so they are dropping record-breaking amounts — more than 203,000 gallons in one day alone.
By Friday, state firefighters and the U.S. Forest Service together had bombarded the conflagration with more than a half-million gallons of the red slurry, said Lynne Tolmachoff, a state fire spokeswoman.
The fire activity is so extreme, it’s pushing through their 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 has chewed through nearly 120 square miles of timber and vegetation about 60 miles east of Sacramento. It was 10 percent contained.
The blaze in steep terrain forced the evacuation of 2,800 people and burned multiple structures in the White Meadows area of Pollock Pines. On Friday, it threatened a key University of California, Berkeley research station that is home to scores of experiments on trees, plants and other wildlife.
The fire also is threatening hydroelectric facilities and power lines that deliver water and electricity to the Sacramento region and some treasured Sierra Nevada recreations areas, the Sacramento Bee reported. Some power stations and lines either burned or were shut down as a precaution, cutting off energy from three utility agencies’ hydroelectric reservoirs.
Wayne Allen Huntsman, 37, pleaded not guilty to an arson charge Friday in El Dorado County Superior Court. He was being held on $10 million bail after authorities said he started the blaze.
Fire officials pulled back on slurry drops Friday because of cloud cover.
Firefighters have used retardant — a water-and-fertilizer mix colored with red dye — since the 1950s to slow the advance of wildfires, but the practice is controversial because of its effect on wildlife. The Forest Service recently adjusted its retardant rules after two lawsuits that alleged the drops were killing fish, damaging watersheds and harming endangered species.
The federal agency now can’t drop retardant within 300 feet of bodies of water on federal forest land and can’t dump the slurry in certain exclusion zones designed to protect endangered plant species. The only exception is if people are in immediate danger from flames.
Critics feel that even with the modifications on retardant drops, the mixture is overused given its cost and impacts on wildlife.
“Retardant was developed ... as an initial attack tool in very remote fires in the middle of wilderness in order to buy time for a crew to hike in and dig a line,” said Andy Stahl, executive director of Forest Service Employees for Environmental Ethics. “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.”
The Forest Service used 12 million gallons of retardant last year nationwide — and 60 percent of it was dumped on California fires, Stahl said.
The environmental restrictions don’t apply to California firefighters, and Cal Fire has increased the amount of retardant over the past decade because of massive air tankers that can release 11,000 gallons in one trip instead of the smaller planes the agency used to rely on.
Tolmachoff, the state fire spokeswoman, didn’t know how many gallons her agency dropped on fires last year, but said the use of retardant was on the rise because of bigger DC-10 air tankers, expanding populations in fire-prone areas and the increasing size and frequency of fires due to drought.
“Our main goal in California is to protect lives and the property and resources, and we put every effort we can into it,” she said.