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Feds ground Montana efforts to fight wildfires with state’s helicopter fleet

By   /   August 25, 2015  /   No Comments

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STATE ON FIRE: As Montana burns, federal restrictions are reportedly keeping the state from using its helicopter fleet to fight the wildfires.

By Marjorie Haun | Watchdog Arena

Virtually all western states have been hit with wildfires this summer but the damage from fires in Montana appears to have been aggravated by Federal Government rules and policies governing vast tracts of federally-owned land in the state.

According to a report by Montana Public Radio, the U.S Forest Service, under the direction of Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack, restricted Montana fire teams from using the helicopters in fire suppression efforts. The report cites Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director, John Tubbs:

The issue, according to the state of Montana’s John Tubbs, stems from the 2009 crash of a private helicopter the U.S. Forest Service contracted to fight fires. After that, the Forest Service put restrictions on what kinds of helicopters can be used to fight fire on national forests.

Tubbs, the director of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says the restrictions are now applied on his department’s helicopters, and cost valuable time.

“Earlier in the summer, we were in Kalispell with our aircraft, and watched the smoke column on the North Fork fire build for 4 hours before they were able to get a U.S.F.S. contracted helicopter on that. And we would have been up and over to the fire in 30 minutes, so that’s three-and-a-half hours of fire,” Tubbs says.

Fire suppression exercises are ordinarily an interagency effort, with state and local agencies coordinating with the federal government. But the vast majority of public lands west of the Continental Divide, including those in Montana, are owned and managed by federal agencies including the Department of the Interior, the Environmental Protection Agency, and the U.S. Forest Service.

On August 21, 2015, Montana Governor, Steve Bullock fired off a grievance letter to Secretary Vilsack regarding the helicopter ban. In a letter to the USDA, Governor Bullock declared:

I have previously stated to you my concerns related to restrictions placed by the USDA Forest Service on the use of Montana UH-1H helicopters. Our pilots have flown these helicopters on hundreds of missions on wildland fires around the state this summer. The primary goal for [Montana’s] DNRC’s UH-1H aircraft is initial attack and they are again demonstrating their effectiveness this fire season.

However, wildland fires emerged on federal fire protection in full view of our aviation staff, who watched them grow as federal firefighters waited for other “approved” aircraft to be dispatched from distant locations. I am also aware of fires where state aircraft were above wildfires and instructed not to take suppression actions, due to the fact that the fires were on federal fire protection. This makes no sense, and puts the safety and property of Montanans at risk.

As of August 24, 2015, over 7 million acres have been burned in western wildland fires, with 13 large and 26 smaller fires still ablaze in Montana. A conservative estimate for damages in Montana alone is currently $36 million.

Last week Governor Bullock declared a state of emergency in Montana’s fire-ravaged regions, authorizing the National Guard to use its resources to aid fire-fighting efforts. But in spite of cries to reverse what Governor Bullock refers to as “nonsensical restrictions,” to date there is no indication that the federal government intends to lift the ban on Montana’s helicopter fire-suppression fleet.

Montana and several other states maintain aerial firefighting fleets to be deployed in wildland fire emergencies. Montana’s fleet includes Blackhawk and Chinook helicopters used for quick and effective fire suppression within the state.

This article was written by a contributor of Watchdog Arena, Franklin Center’s network of writers, bloggers, and citizen journalists.

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Marjorie Haun is a freelance journalist and author. Her works include: "The Heroes of the Vietnam War: Books for Children,” numerous articles, editorials, book reviews, and humor pieces for The Daily Signal, American Thinker, the Post Independent, Watchdog Arena, and others. She makes her home in beautiful and rugged Western Colorado. Follow her on Twitter: @Reagan_Girl