Commentary: Bravado in the Backcountry

Like I was Saying ...

The documents read like a bad crime novel. Men and women in uniform from different districts and departments beset with bravado are on the scene. But instead of fighting dastardly criminals, they are supposed to be fighting big fires.

There’s the pilot who would rather work the case alone and quickly turns cooperation into a competition when he yells to his crew, according to a government e-mail, “the Canadian ship is kicking your ass at deploying the bucket.”

There’s the feds, who have a strained relationship with the state. Thus when reports surface of a state pilot who could have killed a passenger with his reckless flying, no one tells the U.S. Forest Service “because this would jeopardize already tense relationships between the two,” according to an ex-government worker. When another report materializes of a pilot flying so low and so fast that it actually blew flames across a fire line, on top of other concerns over pilot safety, state officials tell employees to stay quiet.

“This situation has gone on to (sic) long … I may not allow any state helicopters to fly on any Missoula Unit fires until all these issues with the helicopter program have been corrected,” the Missoula Fire Unit’s supervisor wrote to state officials.

This thick plot doesn’t need sensationalizing or scene setting. The documents and testimony alone are mesmerizing.

As fires erupted across Montana last summer and the summer before, as they approached towns and choked the air, we weren’t told the whole story. We were told firefighters bravely manned fire lines to protect homes from approaching flames, which they did. But some of them also refused to board helicopters because they didn’t trust their pilots. And other firefighters were allegedly told by their superiors that if they were caught squealing about the ineptitude that they would lose their jobs.

What’s more, the mishaps, according to people familiar with the case, weren’t reported properly until months after each happened, despite the fact that fire superintendents were pleading with their supervisors to conduct an independent investigation.

An investigation eventually ensued. But you must wonder whether it would have happened at all had fire managers not pressed their supervisors into it. Would the helicopter, which is essential to fighting our state’s fires, continue to be misused by pilots and avoided by the firefighters who don’t trust the people piloting them?

The blame in this case falls on several shoulders. Much of it lies with DNRC Chief Pilot Chuck Benton who, as described in an internal government e-mail, was either having a bad day or can’t play nice with others. Much of it lies with State Forester Bob Harrington who told unit supervisors to keep their firefighters quiet about fears over aviation safety, according to a former government worker. Some of it lies with the fire supervisors, who remained quiet for months before coming forward.

Montana depends on the men and women who defend our land from increasingly common wildfires. They work in hot, hazardous conditions to keep us safe from impending flames. Before the next fire season, however, management needs to be reassessed. Montana firefighters should be concerned about fires, not the professionalism of their superiors. Fire disasters are a reality in Montana, not a piece of fiction.

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