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Billings helicopter pilot Gary Blain got a call Friday asking him to go battle one of the many wildfires blazing in Eastern Montana.

On Saturday afternoon, he was still waiting to take off. Blain, co-owner of Billings Flying Service, could not get into the air until he passed a brief inspection by a qualified helicopter manager.

Because helicopter managers are in short supply in the state, Blain had to wait for one to fly in from Oregon. Finally, late Saturday afternoon, after an inspection that lasted just 15 minutes, he got the go-ahead to fly to the Bundy Railroad fire, north of Pompeys Pillar.

This isn't the first time Blain's frustration has flared over the issue of too few helicopter managers.

"I've been working on this probably for five or 10 years, and I just don't seem to be getting anywhere," Blain said, sitting in his office in a trailer not far from his hangar.

Blain got the call Friday from the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho, to secure his services. He spent much of the past month in New Mexico, Arizona, Utah and Wyoming fighting wildfires.

In every location, he works with a helicopter manager who, besides conducting the inspection, works as the liaison between the helicopter pilot and the agency managing the fire.

"We have certain protocol we have to follow, but it's pretty frustrating when you're getting those calls and you're sitting here waiting on the ground for a manager," he said.

Because the state's Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has its own fleet of helicopters and managers to oversee them, they tend not to rely on private contractors. But Blain believes that quick, local response to fires could keep them from blowing up into huge firestorms.

Blain met with Mary Sexton, director of the DNRC, in March to discuss the issues of helicopter managers and use of private aircraft. The DNRC fights fires on state-owned lands in Montana.

In a follow-up letter to Blain after the meeting, Sexton said her agency "is working to ensure an adequate supply of managers in the interagency dispatch pool." But Blain said there have been times when he has waited for days for the DNRC to find an available manager.

And while Sexton, in her letter, said that whenever possible the DNRC would share managers with contract aircraft, Blain said in practice that doesn't often happen. He'd like to see more certified managers available locally so there is little time lapse between the call for helicopter support and the response.

Sexton, in her letter, also said DNRC aircraft are available for initial attacks on fires and the addition of another UH-1 helicopter in fiscal year 2006-07 has the support of Gov. Brian Schweitzer's office. Blain, however, thinks that having helicopters fly from Helena to Billings and other Eastern Montana points to attack fires causes delays when local, private helicopters could respond more quickly.

"Because five minutes on a fire can be the difference between catching it small or letting it get into this type of thing," Blain said. "We need to streamline the system to get helicopters to the fire."

Blain's powerful Puma SA 330J helicopter is capable of dropping 600 gallons of water from its bucket every two minutes for about two hours if a source of water is nearby.

Yellowstone County Commissioner John Ostlund, visiting with Blain Saturday afternoon, expressed his own frustration with the system.

"It's proving to be a failure as it is," he said. "I'm very disappointed that we're four days into this and now just getting off the ground."

Former state legislator Royal Johnson, who has been working with Blain on the problem, also was visiting with Blain on Saturday. Johnson, who visited Sexton with Blain, cited a report published by the DNRC in 2003 that discussed fire suppression.

The report said that the cost to fight a fire when it is 10 acres or less is $4,538. When the fire grows to 5,000 acres, the cost jumps to $2.3 million, Johnson said, "and we've had 103,000 acres so far."

Blain sees a hole in the firefighting system. He must wait for a call from Boise for the request for his services, and he can't fly until a manager can be procured and transported to Billings.

"These are my friends and my neighborhood," he said. "They should be able to call a pilot, go after it, rather than wait for a helicopter to fly in from Helena."

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