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Commentary: Montana is on fire and it’s time for decisive action

Montana has a wildfire problem. It has become increasingly clear that no part of the state is safe from the ever-worsening scourge of wildfires. From ranchland to farmland, suburbs to national parks, ski resorts to state forests — Montana is burning. It’s not hyperbole; ask the residents of Red Lodge, whose entire town was nearly reduced to ash in June.

Meanwhile, Lewistown families are anticipating evacuation notices in October, potentially leaving their homes and personal belongings behind. No one should have to live in constant fear of fire, which is why Montana must take the responsibility of fighting it into our own hands.

We can no longer wait on the federal government to be our first line of defense in fighting wildfires across our State. While the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior are responsible for most of the wildland fire management in our state, these same agencies oversee fire management across the entire country.

Their system is designed to incrementally manage fire incidents over a period of weeks or months, and every fire must be prioritized through a national matrix of incidents from Florida to Alaska that compete for a finite pool of assets. It’s not designed, however, to coordinate aggressive initial attack missions to protect at-risk communities.

When it comes to fighting fires, attacking them quickly is paramount to safeguarding lives, property and habitats. Unfortunately, federal bureaucratic processes delay expedient and efficient fire suppression. Status quo contract and dispatch protocols are so burdensome and complex that it can take hours or even several days for federally contracted aircraft to arrive, even if aircraft are available just miles from the fire.

It is time for the Montana Department of Natural Resources (MT DNRC) to establish an aggressive initial attack strategy. It is imperative that we put our state on a war footing during the incessant wildfire season, to rapidly deploy overwhelming airpower capable of quelling fires when they are small.

Naysayers contend that maintaining a state-based aerial firefighting operation is too expensive. The truth is, the adverse, compounding impacts of letting fires rage out of control are nearly endless. Ranchers can lose property passed from generation to generation, tracts of forest with fully-fleshed out ecosystems can be wiped out in one fell swoop, homes containing irreplaceable belongings and memories can evaporate into flames, and peoples’ health can be irreparably altered by deadly blazes and smoke. In reality, the investment required to fully prepare for proliferating wildfires pales in comparison to the alternative.

We can no longer stand on the sidelines and expect an already strained national fire infrastructure to allocate resources to our large and sparsely populated state. When the Moccasin fire near Lewistown started, there were dozens of aerial assets that could have launched and dropped millions of gallons within the first 12 hours, likely slowing or suppressing it before needed evacuations. Instead, little was done for the first day, and the fire rapidly swelled to over 7,000 acres. This didn’t have to happen.

Response measures towards the Robertson Draw Fire, Haystack and the fire on Finley point mirror this dysfunction. In all of these instances, a plethora of aerial assets were nearby and readily available for immediate dispatch, however due to federal priorities elsewhere it took days to commit meaningful resources.

The Deep Creek Canyon incident was the most notable. It featured a MT DNRC helicopter tragically crashing, and as a result we nearly lost 5 firefighters. That fire was in the foothills near Canyon Ferry Lake and Super Scoopers were fueled and ready to launch out of Bozeman. Sadly, they were never called. If deployed, these Super Scoopers could have dropped 1 million gallons on that fire in the first 12 hours.

We can’t afford to deal with the devastation left in the wake of wildfires, but we can afford to invest in protecting at-risk communities, precious land, vital resources and critical infrastructure from the pernicious wildfire threat. By establishing a robust Montana Aerial Firefighting Task Force, we can dispatch initial attacks on new fires that spark anywhere in our borders within minutes and help neighboring states as needed.

Fortunately, Montana has some of the biggest and most capable aerial firefighting fleets right here in our state, and we pilots would proudly put our lives on the line to safeguard fellow Montanans if called to serve.

Proposal: Montana Aerial Firefighting Task Force

The outline below contains details to establish a state-based aerial firefighting operation dubbed the “Montana Aerial Firefighting Task Force.”

  • Authorization: MT DNRC and Montana counties have the authorization to fight fires that occur on federal land if those fires pose a direct threat to citizens, property or state/county resources.
  • Delays: Many delays in responding to fires result from them starting on private land. USFS can be late to respond since private landowners are expected to carry some responsibility for the fire cost.
  • State Precedent: MT DNRC can contract its own fleet of aircraft — as Washington, Colorado, California, Minnesota and others already do — that reside within the state solely for the purpose of responding to Montana fires under the control of the MT DNRC.
  • Federal Reimbursement Opportunities: The costs for these aircraft can be carried by the state, however, reimbursements can be made by the federal government on a per incident basis when federal lands are part of the fire response. FEMA emergency funding can also be utilized to reimburse state costs related to fire incidents.
  • ROI: Stopping fires when they’re small will save more for the Montana tax base than waiting on federal partners to prioritize Montana fires. The economic impact of evacuating Red Lodge, Bridger Canyon, Lewistown, Finley Point, etc., is immense and highly disruptive to numerous industries while also hurting quality of life for current inhabitants and deterring prospective residents from moving to the state. The cost of funding a Montana AFF TF is miniscule compared to these economic, environmental and societal costs.
  • Task Force Formation: Suggested make-up of the task force would be a Montana-based vendor list. These assets should be on exclusive use contracts from May 15 – October 1, with an additional 2 Super Scoopers, 1 Air Attack and one large air tanker on a call when needed agreement for when extra capacity is needed.
  • Billings Flying Service: Type 1 Helicopters (3 across the state, 1 in Miles City/Billings, 1 in Central Montana, 1 in Western Montana)
  • Bridger Aerospace: 2 Super Scoopers based in Bozeman for statewide dispatch paired with a Type 1 Air Attack. 1 UAV team for fire mapping and surveillance.
  • Cost: This composition would cost the state roughly $35mm per year in up-front cost, however, a large portion of that would be reimbursed through federal and emergency funds. Given Montana’s budget surplus of $800mm, the state wouldn’t be required to find separate funding mechanisms.     

Too much of Montana is at risk every summer and the cost to losing our precious landscapes and our livelihoods is too high to wait any longer to take action. Lets be prepared for the summer of 2022.

Tim Sheehy is a pilot and CEO at Bridger Aerospace, an aerial firefighting service based in Belgrade.