Summit County residents work to clean homes, streets stained with pink fire retardant |

Summit County residents work to clean homes, streets stained with pink fire retardant

An air tanker drops fire retardant on the Tenderfoot 2 Fire in September 2017 in Dillon.
Hugh Carey/Summit Daily

SUMMIT COUNTY — With the Buffalo Mountain Fire extinguished, Summit County residents are turning their focus to dealing with the pink fire retardant left behind.

“Better a pink house than no house,” Summit Fire & EMS Chief Jeff Berino said at a community meeting last week.

Berino was referring to complaints about fire retardant that turned some homes and streets in Mesa Cortina a rusty hue.

Because residents are concerned about the health, environmental and aesthetic impacts of the pink “slurry,” the county has been trying to let residents know what it is and how to get rid of it.

The chemical fire retardant dropped by air tankers on the fire last week is a liquid concentrate mixed with water and is approved for use by the U.S. Forest Service. The mixture is dropped ahead of fires to stop their progress toward homes and structures.

The distinctive coloring is added to make it easier to see for targeting purposes. According to the manufacturer, the mixture’s main fire-retarding ingredient is ammonium polyphosphate, an organic salt that is also used in industrial fertilizer.

After it lands and saturates wood or other organic material, the slurry reacts to give off carbon dioxide, which disperses the oxygen fires need to keep burning. As the treated wood gets hotter, the wood develops a black, charred shell that keeps oxygen from coming in or out and prevents combustion.

If a large enough area is treated, the zone becomes a barrier between the wildfire and whatever it is protecting. The wildfire, with nothing to burn and nowhere else to go, weakens and becomes easier for firefighters to control. Combined with the color, the slurry is like Pepto-Bismol for forest heartburn.

Once the fire is out, the slurry remains until it is washed away naturally by rain. The runoff dissipates into the ground and becomes a kind of fertilizer that helps forest regeneration later by boosting nitrogen and phosphates in soil. The color fades away over time, too.

Chief Berino said a good washing — sooner rather than later — with a garden hose is all it takes to get the color off houses, cars and streets. He said residents should not try to power wash the material off homes because it could force it deeper into porous surfaces like wood and concrete, permanently pinking exteriors.

Dillon District ranger Bill Jackson assures the community that the material is safe for the environment and not toxic, but just like organic chemical fertilizers, it’s not something people or animals should consume. Runoff should not be allowed to collect in pools as pets and other animals might try to drink it.

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