Following a Beacon story about a series of state piloting safety incidents that disrupted firefighting operations in the 2006 and 2007 fire seasons and caused a rift between state fire managers, Montana Department of Conservation and Resources Director Mary Sexton said the agency has addressed the concerns and is moving on.
“We are a large organization,” Sexton said. “At times there are disagreements and we move forward in an appropriate manner.”
“We’ll be set and ready for next fire season,” she added, “just as we were this year.”
Several safety incidents are described in government documents obtained by the Beacon. But the most controversial involves the DNRC’s chief pilot, Chuck Brenton, who allegedly endangered the lives of fire and aviation crewmembers working on the Bearmouth fire outside of Missoula in August of 2006, according to a written complaint from a state aviation supervisor. Brenton’s incident and the subsequent failure to properly report or investigate it prompted the Missoula Fire Unit supervisor, Thomas Otto Carlsen, to write an e-mail of concern to DNRC officials on May 4 of this year. Carlsen eventually ordered his unit to stay off of helicopters until the agency adequately addressed safety. After Carlsen’s e-mail, the DNRC launched an independent investigation, nine months after the Brenton incident occurred.
Gov. Brian Schweiter had no comment on the complaints or investigation, his spokesperson said.
An ex-government employee said DNRC officials – State Forester Bob Harrington in particular – ordered workers not to speak about the investigation or they would be fired. In an interview on Nov. 12, Harrington 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.”
In a separate but related matter, the Federal Aviation Administration released a report that blamed Lanny Gorman’s plane crash outside of Kalispell on pilot error and not engine malfunction as initially reported. Gorman was doing a flight exercise to prepare for wildfire patrol duty on June 20 when his plane plummeted into an alfalfa field. Originally Gorman said the engine quit, but the FAA determined he took an “improper approach to the airstrip.” He also, the report states, failed to file a FAA flight plan, notify Flathead dispatch by radio and initiate “flight following” with the Air Operations section of the DNRC.
Gorman, 71 years old with more than 20,000 many hours of flight experience, is a seasonal pilot for the DNRC. Sexton said she was unsure whether he participated in wildfire patrol flights this summer after the accident. He was on standby, she said.
Sexton said she first heard some details about the Brenton incident and the complaint around January. It wasn’t until April or May, she said, when she heard the full details. Harrington said he told her in early May, around the time of Carlsen’s e-mail. She was then informed of the progress of the investigation and, once the findings were made available, she put the action items together. The short-term items, she said, have been addressed, such as designating a safety officer. The DNRC gave the safety officer duty to Jim Blankenship in Missoula.
The long-term items are “continuing to be implemented,” Sexton said, while the third group of action items – disciplinary – “were carried out in response to the investigation and those are private matters of personnel action.”
Sexton pointed out that the DNRC has a “long and very safe history” of firefighting.
“We’ve been operating our aviation program for over 30 years,” she said, “and have been very effective in suppressing wildfires, a point that’s maybe been forgotten with this.”
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