Missoulian: Relocation of wildfire aircraft equipment draws criticism from Daines

GREAT FALLS (AP) – The U.S. Air Force is being criticized for a proposal to relocate military air tanker equipment used to fight wildfires to Nevada instead of Montana after officials from Montana said the planes and the support teams in Montana would be closer to bigger fires in several Western states.

U.S. Sen. Steve Daines, R-Mont., sent a letter to the Air Force asking why Nevada was chosen for the Modular Airborne Firefighting Systems, which includes equipment that can be installed in C-130 cargo plans to drop retardant on wildfires.

The system can be used by governors where the Air National Guard flight crews operate it, including Wyoming. Colorado uses an Air Force Reserve Command unit. The Department of Defense provides the aircraft.

The units can also be activated by the National Multi-Agency Coordinating Group at the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, for wildfires anywhere in the country.

Forest Service spokeswoman Jennifer Jones said the military determines which planes are available to support wildfire deployment.

Montana lawmakers said basing the firefighting systems out of Montana would provide quicker access to most Western states. They said time is critical when it comes to saving lives and battling wildfires, the Great Falls Tribune reported.

“I am incredibly disappointed with this decision as it denies a vital wildland suppression mission to the state of Montana, where almost three times as many wildfires occurred last year compared to Nevada,” Daines wrote.

Commercial air tankers are usually the first to be called in because the U.S. Forest Service pays for them, whether they’re flying or not.