KPAX: Daines Joins Call for MT Helicopters to Fight Federal Wildfires


Senator Steve Daines is joining Governor Steve Bullock in pressing the federal government to clear the use of Montana’s specially-equipped helicopters to fight fires on federal lands.

Friday, Governor Bullock sent a strongly worded letter to United States Department of Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, calling on his to “rescind an unnecessary and artificial restriction” on the use of the state’s modified UH-1H helicopters on fires burning on federal lands around Montana.

The state’s helicopters have been changed so they can haul larger loads of water to drop on fires. Bullock complains they’ve been working well for combating fires on state lands on “hundreds of missions”, but says the Forest Service restrictions keep the choppers from helping with initial attack as fires stopped on federal lands.

“However, wildland fires emerged on federal fire protection in full view of our aviation staff, who watched them grow as federal firefighters waited for other “approved” aircraft to be dispatched from distant locations,” Bullock writes. “I am also aware of fires where state aircraft were above wildfires and instructed not to take suppression actions, due to the fact that the fires were on federal fire protection. This makes no sense, and puts the safety and property of Montanans at risk.”

During a visit to the Thompson-Divide Fire over the weekend, Daines also expressed his concerns about the helicopter boycott, releasing his own letter to Vilsack.

“UH-1H helicopters have a strong safety record and have been proven to provide a critical capability in the initial attack phase combating wildfires,” Daines writes. “As Montana and the national confront one of the worst fire seasons in recent memory, I urge your Department to reexamine the current policy with respect to the UH-1H and modify existing regulations such that all safe and reliable assets are available and utilized as needed.”

Governor Bullock had conversations with both Secretary Vilsack  as well as Undersecretary for Natural Resources and Environment Robert Bonnie over the weekend about ways to address his concerns.