Bureaucratic Intransigence Hinders Montana’s Ability to Fight Wildfires
2015 is shaping up to be one of the most severe wildfire seasons in a decade for the American northwest and mountain states, prompting Montana Governor Steve Bullock to declare a state of emergency in Montana due to the number of fires already burning and the high fire danger throughout the state. Now more than ever, a cohesive firefighting response on the part of federal, state, local and international responders is critical, but instead a federal regulation born of policy, not safety, hinders the ability of Montana’s state firefighters to extinguish fires on federal lands within the state’s borders. In a positive development, U.S. Department of Agriculture (USDA) Secretary Tom Vilsack and Governor Bullock issued a joint statement suggesting that the current impasse might be resolved in the coming days so that Montana’s firefighting capacity can be fully utilized.
Montana has a number of firefighting aircraft including five MT-205s, which are basically Vietnam-era Bell UH-1 Hueys purchased as military surplus and adapted for firefighting – specifically for scooping up water in 324 gallon buckets and dropping the water to extinguish flames. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS), a division of the USDA, restricts this helicopter from carrying buckets that exceed 224 gallons, which effectively prohibits them from extinguishing fires on federal lands. Montana’s MT-205s have been modified specifically to carry the larger buckets and have flown hundreds of firefighting missions on Montana’s state-owned and private lands this summer alone without incident. However, the USFS is adamant that they cannot participate in firefighting on federal lands. Montana firefighters with their helicopters at the ready have been forced to wait for federal aircraft to arrive watching helplessly as fires grow on federal territory threatening adjacent state and private land.
Governor Bullock sent a letter to Secretary Vilsack on August 21 requesting that the agency rescind the “artificial restriction” on Montana aircraft to allow his state to mount a full defense against the wildfires threatening the state. In the letter he observed that “… wildland fires emerged on federal fire protection in full view of our aviation staff who watched them grow as federal firefighters waited for other ‘approved’ aircraft to be dispatched from distant locations.” He also references an instance where state aircraft were actually “instructed not to take suppression actions, due to the fact that the fires were on federal fire protection.”
Early response is the best way to keep fires from spreading and because fires do not recognize the arbitrary boundaries established by the federal government, fires that begin on federal lands can rapidly spread to state and private lands. Given the fact that firefighting resources are being stretched to the breaking point, employing all available resources toward the mutual goal of extinguishing the fires is more than reasonable, and allowing Montana’s state firefighters to use helicopters on fighting fires on the federal lands within Montana’s borders is a wise move in the right direction.
ALEC has longstanding model policy supporting the transfer of select federal lands to state control. This model policy excludes the transfer of national parks, Congressionally-designated wilderness areas, military installations and tribal lands. This type of federal bureaucratic intransigence underscores why the western states view the transfer of public lands as a desirable option.