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Guest opinion: It's time to rethink our statewide wildfire response
GUEST OPINION

Guest opinion: It's time to rethink our statewide wildfire response

Sheehy bronze star

Then-U.S. Rep. Ryan Zinke presents the Bronze Star with V for valor and Purple Heart to former U.S. Navy Lt. Tim Sheehy of Bozeman in a 2015 ceremony at Fort Harrison.

Montana has a wildfire problem. It has become increasingly clear that no part of the state is safe from the ever-worsening scourge of wildfires. From ranchland to farmland, suburbs to national parks, ski resorts to state forests — Montana is burning. It’s not hyperbole; ask the residents of Red Lodge, whose entire town was nearly reduced to ash in June. Meanwhile, Lewistown families are anticipating evacuation notices in October, potentially leaving their homes and personal belongings behind. No one should have to live in constant fear of fire, which is why Montana must take the responsibility of fighting it into our own hands.

We can no longer wait on the federal government to be our first line of defense in fighting wildfires across our state. While the U.S. Forest Service and the Department of Interior are responsible for most of the wildland fire management in our state, these same agencies oversee fire management across the entire country. Their system is designed to incrementally manage fire incidents over a period of weeks or months, and every fire must be prioritized through a national matrix of incidents from Florida to Alaska that compete for a finite pool of assets. It’s not designed, however, to coordinate aggressive initial attack missions to protect at-risk communities.

When it comes to fighting fires, attacking them quickly is paramount to safeguarding lives, property and habitats. Unfortunately, federal bureaucratic processes delay expedient and efficient fire suppression. Status quo contract and dispatch protocols are so burdensome and complex that it can take hours or even several days for federally contracted aircraft to arrive, even if aircraft are available just miles from the fire.

It is time for the Montana Department of Natural Resources to establish an aggressive initial attack strategy. It is imperative that we put our state on a war footing during the incessant wildfire season, to rapidly deploy overwhelming airpower capable of quelling fires when they are small.

Naysayers contend that maintaining a state-based aerial firefighting operation is too expensive. The truth is that the adverse, compounding impacts of letting fires rage out of control are nearly endless. Ranchers can lose property passed from generation to generation, tracts of forest with fully-fleshed out ecosystems can be wiped out in one fell swoop, homes containing irreplaceable belongings and memories can evaporate into flames, and peoples’ health can be irreparably altered by deadly blazes and smoke. In reality, the investment required to fully prepare for proliferating wildfires pales in comparison to the alternative.

We can no longer stand on the sidelines and expect an already strained national fire infrastructure to allocate resources to our large and sparsely populated state. When the South Moccasin Fire near Lewistown started, there were dozens of aerial assets that could have launched and dropped millions of gallons within the first 12 hours, likely slowing or suppressing it before needed evacuations. Instead, little was done for the first day, and the fire rapidly swelled to over 7,000 acres. This didn’t have to happen.

Response measures towards the Robertson Draw Fire, Haystack and the fire on Finley point mirror this dysfunction. In all of these instances, a plethora of aerial assets were nearby and readily available for immediate dispatch. Due to federal priorities elsewhere, it took days to commit meaningful resources.

The Deep Creek Canyon incident was the most notable. It featured a Montana DNRC helicopter tragically crashing, and as a result we nearly lost 5 firefighters. That fire was in the foothills near Canyon Ferry Lake and Super Scoopers were fueled and ready to launch out of Bozeman. If deployed, these Super Scoopers could have dropped 1 million gallons on that fire in the first 12 hours. Sadly, they were never called.

We can’t afford to deal with the devastation left in the wake of wildfires, but we can afford to invest in protecting at-risk communities, precious land, vital resources and critical infrastructure from the pernicious wildfire threat. By establishing a robust Montana Aerial Firefighting Task Force, we can dispatch initial attacks on new fires that spark anywhere in our borders within minutes and help neighboring states as needed. Fortunately, Montana has some of the biggest and most capable aerial firefighting fleets right here in our state, and we pilots would proudly put our lives on the line to safeguard fellow Montanans if called to serve.

Tim Sheehy is pilot and CEO at Bridger Aerospace, an aerial firefighting service based in Belgrade. He is also a former Navy SEAL and recipient of the Bronze Star with Valor and Purple Heart.

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Michael Paul Williams — a columnist with the Richmond Times-Dispatch in Richmond, Va. — won the 2021 Pulitzer Prize in Commentary "for penetrating and historically insightful columns that guided Richmond, a former capital of the Confederacy, through the painful and complicated process of dismantling the city's monuments to white supremacy."

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