HELENA — In a fire season plagued by equipment shortages across the West, five Montana helicopters used for initial attacks on state and private land are being sidelined from responding to blazes that ignite in federal forests.
State pilots have watched helplessly as wildfires spread on federal lands while waiting for approved aircraft to respond. On other occasions, state helicopters flying above wildfires were told not to take action, Gov. Steve Bullock wrote in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack.
“At a time where a cohesive response to wildland fire is more critical than ever, I continue to be frustrated by this unwarranted and artificial limitation on interagency use of our aircraft,” Bullock wrote.
The issue is the 324-gallon buckets used to scoop and drop water from the Vietnam-era Bell UH-1 Hueys rebuilt and modified as MT-205s.
The U.S. Forest Service notified Montana in 2014 of a policy requiring that helicopters of that type carry buckets 100 gallons smaller, state forester Bob Harrington said Monday.
Forest Service spokeswoman Elizabeth Slown declined to elaborate on the policy preventing the helicopters’ use, but she forwarded a statement that said the Forest Service and Montana have different regulations to which they adhere.
“Federal agencies, including the Forest Service, follow federal operational aviation safety standards that prescribe minimum specifications for the types of aircraft. These performance specifications provide an industry recognized margin of safety,” the statement said.
She said the issue is specific to Montana’s helicopters and not any other state’s aircraft or equipment.
The issue is not one of safety but of policy, Harrington said. The Forest Service is treating the state like a contract operator, not like an equal partner that is following recognized standards, he said.
The modifications made to the helicopters have increased their power to allow them to safely carry the larger buckets, he said. Switching to smaller buckets would reduce the effectiveness of the helicopters and add uncertainty to the jobs of the pilots and aircraft managers.
“That’s simply something we’re not going to do,” Harrington said. “We’re not going to fly with two different operating protocols.”
The state bought the helicopters as military surplus, stripped them down and rebuilt them with a number of firefighting modifications, according to the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The most recent one was finished in 2006 at a cost of $266,000, compared to the $3 million price tag of a new helicopter, according to the agency.
Talks have been ongoing since 2014 to find a solution to the impasse, Harrington said, but the nationwide equipment shortages resulting from the explosion of wildfires across the West in recent weeks have added to the urgency.
As of Monday, there were 113 aircraft being used to fight fires in Montana and Idaho, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. Canada, Australia and New Zealand are among the foreign governments who have sent support to the nearly 30,000 firefighters battling blazes across the West.
The Montana National Guard has deployed 45 troops and four approved helicopters to help firefighting efforts.
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