Battle Over Chopper Safety Hindered Firefighting

By Myers Reece

Firefighting operations in Montana during the 2006 and 2007 fire seasons were seriously disrupted by several helicopter safety incidents – including a “life-threatening” one involving the state’s chief pilot – and a bitter conflict among state fire managers over whether and how to address them, according to internal government documents obtained by the Beacon.

The documents detail an August 2006 incident in which Chuck Brenton, the chief pilot for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, allegedly endangered the lives of fire and aviation crewmembers working on the Bearmouth fire outside of Missoula, according to a written complaint from a state aviation supervisor. The suspicion and mistrust engendered in part by this event set the scene for further conflict during the 2007 fire season, when Missoula-based fire crews were ordered to stay off state aircraft for a month due to safety concerns.

When reached by telephone, Brenton had no comment.

An independent investigation of the 2006 incident was finally launched in May of 2007. After details of the complaints and investigation spread throughout the fire community, government officials ordered employees not to speak to anybody about the safety concerns, according to an ex-government employee and current firefighter.

The ex-government employee, who asked not to be named but spoke with the Beacon, said in an interview that the 2007 fire season was a time of great uncertainty and fear for many government workers.

“The culture of fire in 2007,” the employee said, “was filled with paranoia about losing our jobs over talking about helicopter and aviation safety and especially talking about how the (DNRC) was processing those events and how they process safety procedures.”

According to the employee, State Forester Bob Harrington ordered fire supervisors and DNRC workers to stay silent about the complaints or they would be fired. Harrington, in an interview, denied the accusations.

“What (employees) were told was that after the investigation was complete,” Harrington said, “they were to accept those decisions and if they were no longer able to work as a part of the department and they were not able to carry out the needs of the department, we could have to make some management changes.”

“As word filters out,” he added, “there’s always the potential for misinterpretations.”

Though several incidents are mentioned in the documents, the Brenton incident of Aug. 3, 2006, prompted the most controversy. According to a written complaint by Mark Nanke, aviation operations supervisor for the DNRC’s southwestern land office (SWLO), Brenton disregarded basic safety protocol and exhibited reckless piloting because “he obviously wanted to have his bucket deployed before the Canadian” helicopter at the Bearmouth fire. Among other things, Brenton lifted off before crewmembers were securely buckled in.

“When we lifted we were in a hard left turn,” Nanke wrote, “which could have dumped (one of the crewmembers) out the door. The pilot for Canada 1 was just a few feet out in front of us.”

For the rest of the time, Brenton was hostile toward Nanke’s crew, yelling at onboard crewmembers who expressed great discomfort throughout the ordeal, Nanke wrote. At one point, a crewmember noticed a cable was broken on the drop bucket but told only Nanke, not Brenton, because he “did not feel comfortable … having any conversation with the pilot.” Nanke admitted he didn’t say anything either because “I was so disgusted with (Brenton’s) actions that I did not inform him and that was my mistake.”

“We exited the aircraft and (Brenton) continued to scream at me … (he then) approached me,” Nanke wrote. “At which time I wondered if it was now going to become physical.”

Nine months after the Brenton incident, Thomas Otto Carlsen, supervisor for the Missoula Fire Unit, wrote an e-mail to DNRC officials on May 4, 2007, expressing his concern both for how the Aug. 3 event was handled and the overall safety of state piloting on the fire line. Carlsen also requested an independent investigation into the state helicopter program and criticized the DNRC for not initiating one earlier. He was especially concerned with Brenton, who is still the DNRC’s chief pilot.

“This situation has gone on to [sic] long,” Carlsen wrote in his e-mail. “The helicopter has been an important and necessary part of my initial attack force, but as it stands now I am not going to allow the state helicopter to fly on my unit with Chuck as the pilot.”

Later in the summer, Carlsen ordered his crew not to ride on any DNRC helicopters until safety issues were resolved. One of the firefighters on Carlsen’s unit, who did not want to be named, said his crew went about a month in the summer of 2007 without riding a helicopter, which is a vital component of fighting fires. He called the time “nerve-racking because helicopters are really useful.” But the firefighter, who has been on fire crews for seven years, agreed with Carlsen’s decision to wait until safety protocol was properly addressed. He said although not using helicopters limits a crew’s ability to effectively fight fires, it’s worth it in the name of safety.

The firefighter said he never personally experienced any dangerous situations while riding helicopters, though he heard of other firefighters who did. Along with other firefighters, he was told by supervisors not to speak about the Brenton incident, which was widespread in the fire community, or the unit’s refusal to ride helicopters.

“(Officials) were concerned about blame being pointed,” the firefighter said. “They wanted us to kind of relax about it.”

According to the ex-government employee, there were numerous other unreported occasions when firefighters refused to fly on state aircraft because of safety concerns.

Eddie Morris, aviation officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s Region 1, said he was aware of stories about safety concerns within the DNRC’s aviation department, but he denied that there was ongoing tension between state and federal agencies. The employee, however, said it is widely known in the fire community that tense relations between federal and state aviation teams are a constant in firefighting. Morris, who was previously the aviation safety manager for Region 1, said he thinks the state’s safety problems are “individual incidents and not an overall agency issue.” He said he was never involved in the investigation.

“I was aware of the rumors and I was not asked to be a part of the investigation and I did not want to get involved,” Morris said.

The DNRC launched an independent investigation to look into Brenton’s incident on May 7, 2007, three days after Carlsen’s request, according to an e-mail from Tony Liane, area manager of SWLO, to the DNRC staff members, including Harrington. Originally, Missoula County Sheriff Mike McMeekin headed the investigation. But McMeekin removed himself from the job because of time constraints, Harrington said, at which time an independent investigator based out of Helena and the fire and aviation program manager for the Idaho Department of State Lands took over.

Harrington said officials launched an independent investigation because Carlsen’s e-mail proved there were more problems than just the Aug. 3, 2006 occurrence. Harrington said he had had two meetings with the “principal players” of the Brenton incident, including Brenton himself, Nanke and SWLO officials. One meeting took place immediately after the incident and the second took place in March. After the first one, Harrington said he was initially satisfied that everybody involved could collectively move on, but over the next few months “unresolved issues which were not shared at that fire review” emerged and he decided to get the group together again. He left the March meeting feeling confident that everyone, including Nanke and Brenton, would be able to move forward and work together as needed. Then Carlsen’s e-mail came, describing more scenarios where poor piloting affected firefighting.

“I understood the pertinent details of the (August) incident,” Harrington said, “but what I didn’t realize was that there were other employees who had their own concerns.”

The investigation’s findings, given to the DNRC in late July, include the following: There was an interpersonal conflict between Nanke and Brenton that took place in front of DNRC employees, Canadian crewmembers and others; Brenton’s premature take-off posed a safety hazard to onboard crewmembers; there was an ambiguity of roles, responsibilities and safety protocol throughout the Aug. 3 incident; and the incident was not properly reported.

“There appears to have been several missed opportunities to report on, discuss, and resolve the incident of 8/3/06,” the summary of findings states, “and to discuss and resolve related concerns such as inadequate role definition, communication barriers, and lack of trust between SWLO and the Air Operations Section. There is continuing conflict, misperception and lack of communication and trust between the Air Operations Section and the SWLO, including the perception of retaliation.”

Carlsen allowed his crew to resume riding on helicopters after the investigation. In his May 4 e-mail, however, he pointed out other safety issues, as did the employee, concerning the state’s aviation program. Carlsen mentioned a meeting where the state’s safety pilot, Tal Williams, “announced changes in pilot rotation protocols and changes to Fire Program Manuals without any input or discussion with the fire supervisors and managers.”

“This dictatorial attitude is not conducive to a good or safe working relationship,” Carlsen wrote.

Carlsen also described an incident where a state helicopter made low and fast drops on the Packer Gulch fire line in 2006, which he said blew the fire across the line. It then took firefighters two and a half hours to “contain the slop-over.” Carlsen said low drops like that can knock over trees, causing a “life threatening situation for the firefighters on the ground.” He admitted to not reporting the low flying, instead passing “the word on hoping it would be taken care of,” a decision that “might have hurt future investigations.”

The employee spoke of an incident unrelated to the complaints in which a Federal Aviation Administration investigation into the June plane crash of Lanny Gorman outside of Kalispell concluded that the crash occurred because of pilot error, not aircraft malfunction as was originally reported. Gorman is a seasonal pilot for the DNRC.

Gov. Brian Schweitzer’s spokesperson said the governor was not aware of the documents and had no comment. Harrington said he never spoke with Schweitzer personally, but couldn’t say whether anybody else did. DNRC officials, Harrington said, didn’t need to discuss the investigation or complaints with anybody outside the agency because it was an internal matter.

“I considered it to be primarily an internal matter that we were focused on solving internally among the principal players,” Harrington said, “and I didn’t see a reason to broadcast this unless it showed a structural defect in our program, which I don’t think it did.”

Harrington told Mary Sexton, the DNRC’s director, about the Brenton situation and Nanke’s complaint in May of 2007. While the ex-employee said Sexton wasn’t pleased that she found out nine months after the fact, Harrington said she expressed no anger to him. She was subsequently notified of the investigation’s findings in July. Sexton could not be reached Monday by the Beacon.

Harrington pointed out that all of the people involved in the August affair still work for the state and served their respective roles during this past fire season without running into any problems. He said “there were disciplinary actions taken as a result of the investigation,” but those details are confidential.

“Do I think the principal players involved in the incident can continue working for us in a safe and professional manner?” Harrington said. “I do.”

Related: Excerpts From Interviews and Government Documents

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