HELENA – U.S. aviation experts are planning to head to Montana to review the state's firefighting protocols and see for themselves whether its helicopters should be used to attack blazes on federal lands, officials said Thursday.
Gov. Steve Bullock and U.S. Agricultural Secretary Tom Vilsack said in a joint statement they have had several productive conversations aimed at resolving the impasse that has kept the five modified Bell UH-1H helicopters from initial fire attacks in the state's national forests.
"Our aviation experts will be meeting in Montana in the coming days to develop a plan for operating the state's helicopters as part of coordinated state and federal firefighting operations," the statement said. "Meanwhile, over the last several weeks, the Forest Service and its federal partners have moved additional aviation assets into Montana to meet immediate needs."
As of Thursday, there were 113 aircraft fighting fires in Idaho and Montana, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.
State officials have expressed frustration that the helicopters aren't being used on fires burning on federal lands at a time when resources are scarce. U.S. Forest Service policy, developed after helicopter crashes in the past, requires aircraft of that type carry water-scooping buckets 100 gallons smaller than the 324-gallon buckets used by Montana's helicopters.
The federal aviation experts will review Montana's protocols for fire and safety, along with the modifications made to the helicopters, Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said. But the review will not guarantee the helicopters will be used on the dozens of fires burning on Forest Service land.
"Whatever the outcome, the safety of the firefighters and the people on the ground will be the top priority," Vilsack spokeswoman Catherine Cochran said.
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The rebuilt Vietnam-era helicopters have increased power that allows them to safely carry the 324-gallon buckets, which they've done for initial attacks on state and private lands throughout this fire season, state officials said. Switching to smaller buckets would reduce the effectiveness of the helicopters and add uncertainty to the jobs of the pilots and aircraft managers, state forester Bob Harrington previously told the AP.
During a visit to Montana on Tuesday, Vilsack said the state could do two things to obtain federal approval of the helicopters: Provide paperwork that lays out what has been done to the helicopters and the potential impact on safety, and agree to scoop less water into the buckets while waiting for approval.
Bullock responded by saying it will take more than paperwork submitted in the middle of the fire season for the Agriculture Department to certify those helicopters, and scooping less water runs counter to the purpose of putting out new fires across the state before they spread.
"It certainly wouldn't make sense for us to carry a third less water capacity when still most of that initial attack will occur on state lands, not federal," Bullock said.
AP writer Matthew Brown contributed to this report.