Barkus Questions Response to Fire

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – A state legislator wants congressional follow up on claims that a helicopter available to drop water on a wildfire north of here did not do so, because the U.S. Forest Service wanted to let the fire burn.

The blaze that began in July and continues to burn in the Gates of the Mountains Wilderness and Beartooth Wildlife Management Area has blackened more than 43,000 acres, or about 67 square miles, and is nearing containment.

Sen. Greg Barkus, R-Kalispell, has asked Sen. Max Baucus, D-Mont., to investigate response to the Meriwether fire. Baucus spokeswoman Sara Kuban said the senator’s staff will do so.

Barkus said a state helicopter with a bucket to drop water on the fire was ready to fly after the fire was detected July 21, but at the request of the Forest Service, the chopper did not head to the blaze.

Helena National Forest Supervisor Kevin Riordan said he is comfortable with the response.

Safety concerns prevented dispatching firefighters immediately, and with no crews on the ground, water dropped by a helicopter would have been minimally effective, Riordan said. It is possible the Forest Service found conditions too risky for the helicopter pilot, he said

Riordan rejected the idea that the Forest Service deliberately let the fire grow because it is in a wilderness area, or for any other reason.

Barkus said that with the fire having burned some private land and small buildings, it is possible the federal government should be held responsible for property damage, and for firefighting costs that state and local governments incurred.

“I can understand the wilderness status and policies of ‘let it burn,'” Barkus wrote Baucus. “However, with fire conditions like we have in Montana this year, it seems to me that this policy could be classified as ‘negligence’ …”

A sheepherder spotted the Meriwether fire on July 21 and the Helena Interagency Dispatch Center was notified.

State Forester Bob Harrington confirmed Friday that the fire was observed from a Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation helicopter returning from a different blaze. The dispatch center said the helicopter should not respond to the fire, Harrington said.

He added that one helicopter dropping buckets of water probably would not have extinguished the fire. Water drops typically are used to knock fires out of treetops so crews on the ground can work.

“We can’t have firefighters at every place lightning strikes,” Riordan said. “But we have a pretty good success rate of putting fires out. People can always say coulda, woulda, shoulda, but it doesn’t always work the way they want.”

At the time of the Meriwether blaze, other fires burned in the area, as well.

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