Foam from garbage truck fire likely was ‘primary culprit’ in steelhead trout kill

Update, April 17: The Berkeley Fire Department reports that, “The truck [that caught fire] was a cardboard recycling truck. The contents were emptied into the street, saturated with water and foam, and then removed by a Public Works backhoe. We were unable to determine an ignition source.” Berkeleyside will continue to update this story.

Original story, April 15: More than 60 steelhead trout were killed in Berkeley’s Codornices Creek recently, likely as a result of 20 gallons of foam retardant used to extinguish a garbage truck fire in early April, authorities report.

Experts say they believe some of the creek’s fish population survived, however. Environmental testing has shown that the creek is now back to normal, according to city staff.

Firefighters were particularly concerned during the April 3 garbage truck fire in the 1600 block of Rose Street when they saw flames threatening two compressed natural gas tanks: “Recognizing the immediate danger to people and homes nearby, [they] sprayed the garbage truck with Class A Firefighting Foam,” city spokesman Matthai Chakko said in a statement. “As this was a fast-moving emergency response situation with an explosion hazard, firefighters followed protocols to first protect life.”


Peter Tira, a spokesman for the California Department of Fish and Wildlife, said the foam fire retardant “contained Alpha-olefin Sulfonate Solution, which can be toxic to fish in very high concentrations.” Tira said the agency does not, however, believe firefighters did anything wrong.

“They did what they had to do because they had an emergency,” Tira said Monday. “We don’t fault them at all.”

Other toxins may have gotten into the creek from material in the garbage truck, he said, but the agency identified the foam retardant as “the primary culprit” that experts believe killed the fish in Codornices. The day after the fire, wildlife officers counted 64 dead steelhead trout and one sculpin in the creek. The steelhead in Codornices, he added, are Central California Coast steelhead, which is a federally threatened species listed under the federal Endangered Species Act.

Wildlife officers “did a thorough walk of the creek” April 4 and collected 48 fish carcases for lab analysis. More fish may have died, been collected by residents or been scavenged by raccoons or skunks between the time of the foam exposure and the visit from officers, Tira said, “but we’re probably not talking about a whole lot more.”

Tira said the foam is biodegradable “and should not present long-term environmental impacts. We expect the creek to recover and the steelhead to repopulate the creek naturally.”

Chakko, the city spokesman, said the April 3 fire on Rose Street near McGee Avenue began at about 9:50 a.m. inside the garbage truck’s waste container. Drivers stopped the truck and used a handheld extinguisher to put out the flames: “They also tried to smother the fire by compressing the contents in the container,” Chakko said. “Neither worked.”

When firefighters arrived, they initially used water to put out the blaze. But then they saw the gas tanks and decided they needed to use foam due to the “explosion hazard.” Chakko described the foam as “a very heavily concentrated soap that creates suds when injected into the nozzle.”


Once the fire had been put out, Public Works crews arrived, said Chakko. They “implemented storm drain protocols, and removed foam from the street using vactor trucks and street sweeping vehicles.” At some point, staff realized foam had gotten into Codornices Creek. Firefighters from Berkeley and Albany then “attempted to skim foam from the surface of the creek utilizing absorbent booms and other equipment.”

The Berkeley Fire Department also notified more than 20 local, regional, state and federal agencies, which is in line with its protocols. Chakko said city Environmental Health and Toxics Management staff also responded to investigate.

As of Friday, April 5, he said, staff could not see any foam residue or fish carcasses in the creek.

Berkeley Fire Chief Dave Brannigan said the water in Codornices was tested last week and, as of Friday, levels were normal.

Tira, from Fish and Wildlife, said the agency believes there are still steelhead in the creek because parts of Codornices were not impacted. He said steelhead are adept at survival. The population lives in creeks as well as the San Francisco Bay and the ocean, which will also help it recover.

“Yes, fish were lost,” he said. “But the stream will recover. There’s a lot of great habitat there thanks to the community and the school kids. And it’s a wet year: That’s always great for steelhead and salmon.”