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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Montana Pushes To Use State Helicopters To Fight Fires On Federal Land

A Forest Service helicopter near Missoula, MT.
Lane Lamoreaux (PD)
A Forest Service helicopter near Missoula, MT.

The State of Montana’s fleet of firefighting helicopters remains unable to to fight some fires on federal land, and Wednesday a state legislative council asked for action. It’s been a years-long struggle.Montana’s Environmental Quality Council sent a letter to the secretaries of the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior Wednesday, urging an end to what was described by the state council as an illogical bureaucratic technicality.

Montana has five large helicopters used to fight fires on state land, but they can rarely be used on federal land, which makes up about 29 percent of the state.

David Smith with the Department of Agriculture says federal officials inspected the state helicopters in 2015 and found they didn’t meet national standards.

“But we came up with an agreement that would allow those helicopters to be used in situations when human life is at risk," says Smith.

The EQC doesn’t think that’s enough, and wants Feds to allow the state helicopters, which are sometimes closer than national resources, to respond as soon as a fire starts. The EQC letter to federal land managers also ask for additional firefighting attention in eastern Montana, where fire could consume sage grouse habitat.

Staff at the Interior Department were unavailable for an interview, but an emailed statement from an Interior spokesman said Secretary Ryan Zinke continues to monitor the fire situation in Montana and is “dedicated to keeping our people, and wildlife safe.”

John Brenden from Scobey, who sits on the Environmental Quality Council, told members during a brief phone conference Wednesday that conditions in Northeast Montana were getting dangerous. 

“We’ve had four fires, that didn’t start on my place, that burned up my pasture and several other people's pasture; that’s how dry it is. And that’s four times within a week," Brenden said.

The EQC unanimously voted in favor of sending the letter asking firefighting assistance to federal officials. The council will meet again in September.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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