Montana, feds come to agreement on use of firefighting helicopters

Posted: May 26, 2016

Source: Billings Gazette

Larry Mayer - Gazette Staff

Larry Mayer – GazetteStaff

HELENA — Montana and federal officials have made a deal that will allow the state’s five firefighting helicopters to respond to some blazes on federal lands, after they were barred from doing so last year as fires raging across the West led to equipment shortages.

The agreement allows the retrofitted Vietnam-era helicopters to be used when lives are at risk or when the governor declares a state of emergency, Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spokesman John Grassy said Thursday.

Additional details about the deal, which was finalized this week, will be released during Gov. Steve Bullock’s fire briefing in Butte Friday.

“There will be state aircraft flying on federal fires this summer,” Grassy said.

The helicopters were barred last year from responding to fires in national forests and U.S. Bureau of Land Management land because federal standards require they use smaller buckets to scoop water. The issue sparked tension between state and federal officials with a shortage of resources available to fight blazes during an active fire season last year across the West.

The five modified Bell UH-1H helicopters have increased power that enables them to carry 324-gallon buckets. However, U.S. Forest Service policy, developed after helicopter crashes in the past, requires aircraft of that type to carry water-scooping buckets 100 gallons smaller.

The issue is specific to Montana’s helicopters and not any other state’s aircraft of equipment, Forest Service officials previously said.

The helicopters also respond to fires on state or private lands burning in Montana, and the state refused to decrease the size of the buckets because that would reduce the aircraft’s effectiveness, DNRC officials said at the time.

Discussions between Bullock and U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, whose department the Forest Service is under, led to a federal inspection of the state’s aviation program last summer. The program was deemed safe in September, when the fire season was dying down, leaving the sides to negotiate how to broaden federal standards to allow the helicopters’ use.

“We have had six months of negotiations where we pushed them and they pushed us,” State Forester Bob Harrington told the state Environmental Quality Council on Wednesday.

Forest Service spokesman David Smith said the talks centered on how to use the helicopters to protect the lives of Montana residents while not endangering the lives of firefighters.

“We are pleased to have reached an agreement to ensure an adequate aviation response to wildfires as we prepare for the uncertain 2016 fire season and seasons to come,” Smith said.