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Helena USFS Air Tanker Base key to battling North Hills wildfire

Posted at 7:38 AM, Jul 30, 2019
and last updated 2019-07-30 09:38:30-04
Fire Plane Retardant Drop
A plane dropping retardant on the North Hills fire burning in the Helena Valley. (MTN News photo)

HELENA – The US Forest Service Air Tanker Base in Helena set several records this past weekend, including drops made in a single day.

Three air attack planes, two lead planes and seven air tankers have been using the base to fight the North Hills Fire.

From Friday through Sunday, tankers dropped around 440,000 gallons of fire retardant, with 68 loads carrying 231,000 gallons being dropped on Sunday alone.

The fleet of air tankers is comprised of two Single-Engine Air Tankers (SEATs), four Large Air Tankers (LATs) and DC-10 Very Large Air Tanker (VLAT).

The Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest Aviation Center made significant upgrades to the Tanker Base over the last year.

The base received wider plumbing, new pumps, two 25,000 tanks of liquid concentrate and one 25,000 gallon off-load tank.

Due to the proximity to the fire and the new tanker base upgrades, the DC-10 VLAT was able to load, make a drop and reload in under a half-hour.

“This is really why we did the upgrades,” said Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest spokeswoman Kathy Bushnell.

“We’re able to support these larger aircraft and all the other aircraft in a timely manner,” she added. “That will help the efficiency and all of the work that’s going on the ground.”

The air tankers only make drops when requested by fire teams on the ground and can not make drops at night due to safety concerns.

The USFS also stresses the importance of not flying any drones near any wildlands fire. If a drone is spotted, the planes and helicopters are required to cease operations until the drone is gone.

The North Hills fire had burned over 4,200 acres as of Monday with earlier evacuation orders still in place.

-John Riley reporting for MTN News