If you've even glanced at one of Montana's myriad wildfires this summer, there's a good chance you've seen them buzzing overhead, dropping thousands of gallons of water and retardant on blazes that have crisped the state's landscapes.
While not the only tools in the firefighting air fleet, three heavy air tankers, two smaller lead airplanes and two helicopters, as well as the crews to man and maintain them, from Canada on loan through an international mutual aid agreement have played a vital role in efforts to douse dozens of fires, especially in Eastern Montana.
"It allows us to take a total scope approach to help the local fire departments (fight wildfires)," said Derek Yeager, fire program manager for the state Department of Natural Resource's Southern Land Office in Billings. "With that air support, they can lay retardant and bucket drops. It really limits the intensity of a fire in a lot of cases."
Two of the Convair 580 tankers and a lead plane, all from Saskatchewan, and one of the 212 Bell helicopters, from Alberta, are stationed at the air tanker base at Billings Logan International Airport, at the ready to tackle fires when they spring up, sometimes long before heavy ground resources can arrive.
The other tanker, lead plane and helicopter are stationed in Helena.
The Northwest Wildland Fire Protection Agreement, often called the Northwest Compact, is a cooperative plan ratified in 1998 to provide firefighting help and resources among five states (Alaska, Washington, Oregon, Idaho and Montana) and five Canadian provinces (Alberta, British Columbia, Northwest Territories, Saskatchewan and the Yukon).
DNRC fire officials said the air support arrived in late June. While it can be called back with 48 hours notice, it has been in use ever since. The decision to ask for help was a no-brainer.
"There wasn't really any indication that things were going to get better," said Matt Wolcott, the Southern Land Office's area manager. "The real need was recognizing that the conditions are what they are, and they're probably going to stay that way for the summer."
That's held true since the planes and helicopters arrived, as the Billings-based ones have logged about 200 hours in the air over about two months.
While that doesn't sound like much, keep in mind that it may take ground crews of engines, tenders and dozers hours to reach an area that the tankers can get to in 15 or 20 minutes.
Wolcott said that having the resources stateside for so long is extremely rare, but the summer's severe fire conditions combined with tight competition for national air support made it necessary.
"There's a lot of competition in a fire season for resources like this and there's a limited number heavy of air tankers and heavy helicopters," he said. "Even if they're available, the wait time can take a while or we might not even get them."
On the ground, fire crews from the seven area counties within the Southern Land Office's jurisdiction are scattered throughout communities, often made up of local firefighters on their days off.
They have DNRC engines used by local fire stations that can be reassigned to fires as soon as they spark and, at any given moment, there are between five and 30 at the DNRC offices behind the Billings airport. Scattered throughout are crews from other states, provided through individual agreements.
The local fire departments can then request help from larger agencies, such as the DNRC, which can then go for even more resources, such as help from the Canadian tankers.
With the Canadian tankers and helicopter available, fire crews can throw more resources — and do it faster — than usual at new starts in an effort to nip them before they can blow up. For example, the Hibbard fire sparked on Sunday north of Pompeys Pillar and, within hours, three heavy tankers and a helicopter were helping local crews, dousing the fire after it burned 326 acres.
"We want to get in there and dogpile the fires as soon as we hear about them," Wolcott said.
And its not just the Billings area benefiting from the Northwest Compact. They've helped out everywhere from Yellowstone National Park to the Hi-line, from the Crow Indian Reservation to the Missouri Breaks.
Last year, Montana also sent crews to help fight fires in Alaska and an overhead crew, engines and other resources to British Columbia during the 2010 fire season.
The Canadian air support won't be around all year — Wolcott thanked Montana's governor, two senators and congressman for working to keep it here — but has been an integral part of a nasty Montana fire season, helping to keep some already massive fires from getting even bigger while keeping smaller ones in check.
That's something that isn't lost on Yeager.
"If we had our way, they'd just stay here," he said.