More help sought for Montana fires ahead of weather shift

Monday, June 21, 2021
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Residents watch as flames from the Robertson Draw fire burn above Red Lodge, Mont., Tuesday evening, June 15, 2021. Wildfires burning in Montana exploded in size over the past 24 hours and triggered evacuations of people from rural areas as scorching heat and heavy winds stoked the blazes. AP PHOTO

BILLINGS (AP) — Montana’s firefighting aircraft returned to duty Friday as officials sought even more personnel and aircraft ahead of a shift in the weather that could stir up a large blaze on the Wyoming border.

A red flag warning — indicating critical fire weather conditions — was issued for areas in southern Montana and northern Wyoming through Saturday evening. Dry and unusually warm weather, accompanied by gusts, was predicted.

A helicopter crash earlier this week grounded the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s fleet as major wildfires broke out.

An initial review released by the agency Friday blamed the crash landing on heavy winds. But it said the accident was preventable had the pilot followed procedures that would have given him more time to evaluate the conditions as the helicopter came in for a landing.

Five agency personnel were aboard the Bell UH-1H (Huey) helicopter when it crashed Tuesday alongside Highway 12, rolled and burned while returning to base during the fight against a fire east of Townsend.

A crew member kicked out a windshield so the occupants could escape, helped by a state trooper who came on the scene, the review said. The pilot had neck and back pain, and a crew member’s face was covered in blood, according to the review. All of the helicopter’s occupants were taken to hospitals and released later that night, officials said.

As a result of the accident, the pilot will receive more training in flying in windy conditions, officials said.

The natural resource agency’s six remaining helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft were returned to operations Friday. It was the first helicopter crash for the agency, which has had two fixed-wing accidents in the past, officials said.

Almost 55 square miles (142 square kilometers) have burned in Montana so far in 2021, according to state and government data. The vast majority — 94 % — burned in human-caused fires, the data indicates.

Evacuation orders were lifted on a 38-square-mile (98-square-kilometer) fire south of Red Lodge. The fire near Yellowstone National Park and along the Wyoming state line burned eight houses and buildings and 13 outbuildings when it exploded Tuesday amid heavy winds and record-breaking heat.

Fire officials requested more personnel and the aid of two “Water Scooper” aircraft as they prepared for Saturday’s shift in weather. Scooper aircraft, which can skim the surface of a lake and fill their onboard water tanks within 15 to 20 seconds, work in tandem with ground crews to prevent fires from spreading. They would use water from Cooney Reservoir and possibly Buffalo Bill Reservoir to fight the flames.

More than 200 personnel were working to quell the fire as of Friday afternoon.

A second fire burning through timber near the Wyoming border in the Pryor Mountains has grown to more than 9 square miles (21 square miles) since it ignited Tuesday.

Gov. Greg Gianforte issued an executive order Friday waiving restrictions on the service hours for certain commercial trucks that distribute fuel used for airports and tanker bases that support fire suppression efforts.



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