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After the wine country fires, what happens to the crops?

By in Press Enterprise on November 2, 2017

By CALmatters

By Julie Cart, CALmatters

The full extent of the damage from the northern California wildfires that killed 43 people and destroyed 8,400 homes is still being tallied. The devastation left an obvious scar, but not all the damage is visible.

Among the assessments still to be made is what impact millions of gallons of fire retardant—essentially a potent fertilizer—may have on carefully tended plants and soils.

Saved by timing, nearly 80 percent of the renowned wine region’s grapes had been harvested when the multiple fires started in early October. And for the most part, the blazes did not linger at the vineyards, which are kept free of grasses and other fire-devouring fuels.

But there was collateral damage: bright red slathers of fire retardant dropped from the state’s fleet of supertankers. In one week, more than 2 million gallons of retardant were dropped in California—a record, according to Cal Fire, the state firefighting agency.

“We are always mindful of where we are trying to drop aerial fire retardant,” said Chris Jurasek, the Cal Fire aviation supervisor who directed many of the drops. “It’s always in our mind to try and alleviate contacting anything other than fire.”

Cal Fire has the largest aerial firefighting fleet in the world. As planes become increasingly central to fighting fires in California, more and more retardant is served up.

On one day during the recent fires, Oct. 12, crews loaded nearly 700 gallons of retardant a minute from dawn to dusk to help slow the fire, according to Cal Fire. By way of comparison: The state’s largest aviation facility, near Sacramento, pumped 1.7 million gallons of retardant into firefighting tankers in 2016. The base has already used more than 4 million gallons so far this year.

The retardant, called Phos-Chek, contains ammonium phosphate, a fertilizer. It also includes chemicals to regulate how the slurry […]    

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