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Water Today Title January 20, 2018

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By: Jessica Lemieux

After enduring an absolutely devastating wildfire, which began on May 1st, 2016 and was only officially classified as being under control on July 5th, 2016, Fort McMurray is faced with many residual factors, such as the nearly 600,000 hectares of forest that was consumed in the fire. A large factor in getting the fires under control was the many water bombers that were used to drop mass loads of water, in conjunction with essential chemicals, onto the blazing forest.

Geoffrey Driscoll, from the Communications Department at Alberta Agriculture and Forestry, was able to offer some information as to what exactly these chemicals are and whether or not people need to be worried about potential effects to their health or the environment.

Driscoll explained,

    The water bomber [pilots] do their very best to avoid dropping retardant or foam in and around any bodies of water. However, even if they did, the retardant, as well as the foam that they use, are both non-toxic and are biodegradable. They're actually made up almost entirely of water. The retardant - which is the red stuff you see falling from the [water bombers], is 90% water. The retardant is essentially a very, very, very low concentration fertilizer, and it washes away in the rain once on the ground and it is actually good for plants. The foam, which isn't seen as often, is essentially a soap and it is 99% water-based. As mentioned, both are biodegradable and non-toxic, which is one of the reasons why we purchase them.

He added,

"If you're dropping this stuff all over the forest, we have to ensure it isn't worse for the trees than the fire itself, otherwise, we wouldn't really be getting anywhere."

Phos-Chek LC95W Solution, is the foam fire retardant solution that was used in the water bombers to fight the Fort McMurray fire. The substance is made up of Ammonium Polyphosphate Solution, Attapulgus Clay, Performance additives and Water.

Below is extensive information regarding the substance, from its Environmental, Safety and Health Issues report:

What is Phos-Chek WD 881?

  • Phos-Chek WD 881 is a foam forming water additive designed for use on Class A fires; those defined by the National Fire Protection Association (NFPA) as fires in ordinary combustible materials such as wood, cloth, paper, rubber, and many plastics.

    What does Phos-Chek WD 881 contain?

  • WD 881 contains a surfactant or wetting agent commonly used in shampoos and other cleaning compounds. Surfactants and wetting agents are terms that are used interchangeably for chemicals which reduce the surface tension of water so that it will more continuously cover and penetrate or soak into porous materials (such as wood) on which it is applied. The surfactant is dissolved in a mixture of water and organic solvents in order to change it from a solid to a more user-friendly liquid that can be easily metered and mixed with water. Phos-Chek WD 881 concentrate contains, also, a small amount of an additive which increases foam stability so that its contained water will remain in contact with the fuel long enough to increase penetration and absorption. The characteristic "orange blossom" aroma of WD 881 is due to the presence of a small amount of an organic solvent that is extracted from orange peel.

    What effect will use of Phos-Chek WD 881 have on the environment? Is it biodegradable?

  • Many, but not all, chemicals that consist primarily of carbon, hydrogen, and oxygen are degraded and ingested by naturally occurring bacteria in the soil, air and water. When this occurs, bacterial enzymes (digestive juices) break the chemical into its individual elements that can then be consumed (used for food) by the bacteria. Phos-Chek WD 881 contains biodegradable organic compounds that after use are converted by bacteria to carbon dioxide. Biodegradation, in effect, removes product residues from the environment eliminating potential accumulation in nature. Phos-Chek WD-881 has been extensively tested and has met the recognized criteria for being classified as biodegradable in water systems. Testing has been conducted using three different types of measurements of biodegradability.

    These measurements include:

    • Measurement of oxygen depletion in a closed system.
    • Measurement of carbon dioxide evolution in an aerated system.
    • Measurement of disappearance of dissolved organic carbon in an aerated system.

      Is it harmful to plants or vegetation?

    • The impact of Phos-Chek WD 881 solutions on vegetation has not been studied. However, millions of gallons of WD 881 solutions containing 0.3 to 0.6% of the concentrate have been applied by both aerial and ground application on wildland fires during the past eleven years with no report of vegetative mortality. There have been reports of needle browning when a Class A foam formulation containing a relatively large concentration of alcohol was applied on evergreen trees. We are not aware that these reports have been confirmed, however.

      Will it kill fish?

    • Testing has been conducted to ascertain the impact of WD 881 spills and applications on several aquatic dwelling organisms. The data indicate that the concentrate is slightly to moderately toxic to fish - more so to fingerlings than to larger species. Spills of large volumes of concentrate or foam solution, such as a helicopter load of solution or a full drum of concentrate, into a lake or stream could result in a fish-kill. Application of foam solutions on or near the edge of bodies of water should be avoided although significant impact in this case would be questionable because of the extremely low use concentrations. Moderate amounts of product run-off or foam that is flushed into streams after normal use will not likely cause a fish-kill. When amphibious aircraft scoop water from lakes and rivers, some foam solution will be expelled because of residues in the tanks and the expelling of solution from over filled tanks. Analyses of water following such an operation by the Province of Quebec (Canada) failed to find detectable quantities of the foam concentrate present the day following the operation.

      Will Phos-Chek WD 881 solutions leach into the groundwater?

    • With the highly dilute use concentrations, ground water concerns have not and would not be expected from the application of Phos-Chek WD 881 solutions. A limited number of analyses from studies in Newfoundland showed no measurable concentration of Phos-Chek WD 881 ingredients in water from 8' deep wells after repeated application of the foam. We would assist in the analyses of water if concerns should arise in the future.

      Is it harmful to wildlife or farm animals?

    • The acute toxicity of Phos-Chek WD 881 foam solutions was studied by the National Biological Service. These studies indicated that no toxicity should be encountered at the highest practical exposure level. The data indicates, also, that foam residues remaining on vegetation after normal use in fire fighting operations is unlikely to cause harm if subsequently ingested by animals. The reaction of the digestive systems of animals varies significantly among species, however. Thus we recommend that if domestic animals such as cows or horses eat a large amount of Phos-Chek WD 881, a veterinarian or Animal Poison Control Center be contacted for advice specific to the situation.

      Rogers Insurance Ltd. in Fort McMurray was contacted in regards to whether or not people's ability to make insurance claims will be at all impacted, if their homes have now come into contact with the chemicals used in the water bombers to put the fires out. Senior Account Executive, Kevin Lea, was able to offer some helpful information.

      Lea explained,

        Generally speaking, a lot of the water bombing was done with water, not chemical fire retardants, so there is less residue than you might imagine. For getting new Property insurance policies in place, the insurance companies are not overly concerned with what type of firefighting was used; they are more concerned about if there is any physical damage at the specific location to be insured. Even water-only aerial bombing can rip off siding & shingles, or break windows (leading to water damage inside a home or business). The insurance companies are generally writing new policies in the non-restricted areas of Fort McMurray (aka the areas that didn't totally burn to the ground). That being said, the vast majority of them are requiring photos of the location to be insured, along with an in-person inspection by the broker or the insurer themselves to confirm that the location is not damaged as a result of fire, smoke or fire suppression efforts.

        Should there have been damage, proof that it has been fully repaired is also needed. Once that is all confirmed, then it's business as usual to get new coverage into place. Their rates will not be overly affected by the aerial firefighting efforts themselves (apart from maybe losing a claims-free discount), as it is a lot cheaper to fix broken shingles than it is to pay out for totally burnt houses. That being said, there certainly has been and will be overall impacts to the Property insurance rates for homeowners and businesses for locations in Fort McMurray or any other location that may be impacted by future wildfires. This is not really dependent on the claims from the May fires, the future rates will be based on the probability of future losses. The exact extent of these rate changes will depend on individual building types and the nearby geographic factors that would affect the exposure to loss from wildfire.

          The Insurance Board of Canada was also contacted with questions regarding folks' ability to make insurance claims if their homes have now come into contact with the chemicals used in the water bombers. A spokesperson offered, "As far as I know, at this point, it's not known to affect your ability to get insurance. This is not something that has come up yet."

          Dr. Uldis Silins, a professor of forest hydrology at the University of Alberta, has spent over a dozen years studying the effects of fires on water sources, as one of 11 members of the Southern Rockies Watershed Project. He was able to offer some insight as to what the specific concerns are, in relation to the water quality in Fort McMurray.

          Dr. Silins said, "Above Fort McMurray, the watershed area [from the Athabasca River] is very large - about 100,000 square kilometres, and while the fire was very large - about 6,000 square kilometres, that's only about 6% of the watershed area." He continued, "What's different, is that the Fort McMurray fire was right on top of the city, so some of the initial things we were concerned about was the run-off of ash and other contaminants that could be reaching the river very close to the city." Dr. Silins ensured that "the provincial government has been very forward thinking through all of this, and very keenly involved, to ensure that water quality monitoring and sampling is taking place to be able to document what those changes to the water quality to the river are."

          The Municipality of Wood Buffalo was questioned, regarding their stance on the current water quality and whether or not there are any concerns with the retardant, ash and debris that are present in the water.

          According to Russell Baker, Public Information Officer from the Regional Emergency Operations Centre for the Municipality of Wood Buffalo, "Historical information and testing from other locations and communities that have experienced similar wildfire events, has shown that the conventional treatment process of coagulation and filtration removes any materials during the treatment process that could present a health concern in the drinking water."

          Other perspectives are a more concerned with the effects of fire retardant chemicals in bodies of water.

          According to the New Mexico Environment Department's, "WILDFIRE IMPACTS ON SURFACE WATER QUALITY," one of the primary water quality concerns after a wildfire is the introduction of fire retardant chemicals into bodies of water, as it can reach toxic levels for aquatic organisms.

          "Fire retardants typically contain large amount of nitrogen and ammonia, and they can cause water quality problems when fire-suppressing drops are made close to streams. The magnitude of the effects of fire on water quality is primarily driven by fire severity (how much of the fuel is consumed) and fire intensity (how hot the fire burned) coupled with subsequent seasonal weather events (e.g., monsoon rainfall)."

          "In other words, the more severe the fire, the greater the amount of fuel consumed, the more nutrients released, and the more susceptible the watershed is to erosion of soil and nutrients into the stream, which could negatively impact water quality."

          "In addition, fire intensity affects the formation of hydrophobic soils that repel water and increase the probability of storm water runoff in the watershed. Another important determinant of the magnitude of the effects of fire on water quality is the slope of the burned area; steeper slopes are more likely to result in greater runoff and transport of chemicals and sediment to streams, rivers, or lakes in the watershed."

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