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Wildfire burning near Yosemite destroys 45 structures

An air tanker drops retardant while battling a wildfire near Mariposa, Calif., Wednesday.

It’s pretty clear to anyone who’s watched firefighters try to control the massive blazes bedeviling California over the last two years that they have the right stuff. But questions have arisen over whether they are using all the right stuff.

The maker of a rival firefighting substance has cried foul over an exclusive contract between suppliers of Phos-Chek fire retardant fluids and the state Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, known as Cal Fire.

That pact sees the state using no long-term fire retardant other than Phos-Chek, a highly visible pinkish-red fluid dropped from air tankers onto fast-moving flames. Phos-Chek, produced by the St. Louis-based ICL Performance Products in Ontario, California and Moreland, Idaho, slows fires and can steer them, but doesn’t put them out.

With ingredients including ammonium polyphosphate and attapulgus clay, it is toxic to most fish; firefighters must try to avoid spills into rivers and creeks. It is the only long-term fire retardant recommended by the U.S. Forest Service.

Cal Fire pays just under $3 per gallon for Phos-Check, about $47,000 per full load for a Boeing 747 tanker, a total of $28.4 million last year, records show.

But backers of the less toxic competitor Pyrocool maintain their product is better, partly because it actually extinguishes fires, partly because it is cheaper at about 17 cents per gallon and partly because of its lower toxicity. It won a major federal Environmental Protection Agency safety award in 1998.

“We’ve been trying for at least 10 years to get Cal Fire to use our product,” says Pyrocool CEO Robert Tinsley, a resident of Brentwood in the far East Bay. “With these devastating fires, you’d think they’d take a look at something else that has credentials.”

In fact, some California locales have used Pyrocool, including the University of California’s Davis campus and the cities of San Rafael and El Centro. It’s also been employed by the federal bureaus of Land Management and Indian Affairs, British Petroleum and the U.S. Navy and Air Force.

But Cal Fire won’t try it because it’s not on the approved list of the U.S. Forest Service. “We don’t do the testing; they do,” says Scott McLean, Cal Fire spokesman. “We’re very comfortable following the USFS lead.” Cal Fire does not have a chemicals testing lab, relying on the USFS, whose own lab is not accredited.

Meanwhile, the Forest Service won’t certify Pyrocool because it failed a safety test almost 20 years ago. In that episode, Pyrocool says it provided two drums of its product to the USFS. One passed, the other failed as too corrosive of magnesium-based substances.

Pyrocool refuses to pay for a USFS retest, maintaining the Forest Service lab is unaccredited and unreliable, unable to duplicate results. The USFS said in an email its wildfire products lab is not accredited because “there is no legal requirement” for that.

Tinsley offered to let Cal Fire test Pyrocool at an accredited lab in California, at company expense. But McLean said in an email that “Due to being a state agency, we cannot honor the offer by Pyrocool to have another lab test their product specifically for Cal Fire.”

McLean also said Cal Fire is not sure Pyrocool (like Phos-Check, a mix of water with a base concentrate) would stay in solution in an air tanker.

But Pyrocool officials recount a January 2017 case where during raging wildfires in Chile, the Walmart-linked Walton Family Foundation paid to send a 747 loaded with Pyrocool in solution to the rescue of the city of Llico, which was threatened with the same fate suffered last year by Paradise, California.

When it arrived and made several drops, disaster was averted.

Tinsley also cites the case of the oil tanker Nassia, burning in the Bosporus Strait near Istanbul, where the Lloyds of London insurance consortium estimated flames would burn at least 12 days. A salvage firm dropped a helicopter load of Pyrocool and the fire was out in 20 minutes.

No one can be sure Pyrocool or some other product would do better than Phos-Chek against California wildfires. But given Cal Fire’s inability to stop recent big fires, it’s an open question whether this state’s very capable firefighters are getting the right stuff to do their job well.

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Thomas D. Elias writes the syndicated California Focus column. He is author of the book, “The Burzynski Breakthrough: The Most Promising Cancer Treatment and the Government’s Campaign to Squelch It.”