Montana’s Environmental Quality Council is asking two federal departments for help in fighting wildfires around the state.
The council which includes state lawmakers and members of the public voted unanimously to send a letter to U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Purdue. The vote came during a conference call Wednesday morning.
The letter deals with two separate issues around federal response to wildfires in Montana. First, it calls for an exception to a U.S. Forest Service policy that restricts the use of Montana’s firefighting helicopters on federal lands.
“For them to be allowed on all lands in the state except federal land because of a bureaucratic technicality is not logical,” the letter said.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation purchased five Army-surplus Huey helicopters and modified them to drop water. DNRC uses those helicopters, now designated MT-205, to attack fires around the state.
However, DNRC Director John Tubbs says the helicopters aren’t in compliance with federal requirements, because their 324-gallon buckets are larger than what the standard calls for. That means federal authorities won’t call them in for fires on Forest Service or other federal land, even if they are the closest responders.
“This is the only resource that we have in Montana where the Forest Service won’t call our resources as if they were federal resources,” Tubbs said.
Tubbs said the Forest Service has confirmed there is no safety issue with the MT-205 helicopters. Over the past two fire seasons, state and federal authorities have reached an agreement that DNRC will be called in for federally managed fires, but only if there is an imminent threat to human life.
“It works,” Tubbs said. “It’s not optimum.”
A broader exception could also allow DNRC to carry federal firefighters from place to place. Federal employees aren’t able to ride on unapproved aircraft.
Tubbs said the MT-205 helicopters would have to be outfitted with a bucket smaller than 300 gallons in order to meet the federal standard. He said DNRC isn’t willing to make that change, because they want to maintain as much firefighting capacity as possible.
The Environmental Quality Council’s letter also calls on the Bureau of Land Management to increase its firefighting resources in eastern Montana. Council members say they’re concerned BLM doesn’t have enough resources to deal with the increased fire risk in the region.
Much of eastern Montana is currently experiencing a serious drought. John Brenden, a farmer and former state senator from Scobey, said a number of recent fires have burned pasture land on his property and his neighbors’.
“It’s four times within a week,” he said. “There have been fire calls out in northeastern Montana every single day, multiple fire calls. So that’s how serious it is out there.”
In the letter, the council warned that any wildfire in eastern Montana could “consume valuable sage grouse habitat and wipe out the work the state has done in recent years to protect that habitat.”