State Aircraft Sidelined after MT Fire Helicopter Crash

Montana wildfire crash
In this photo provided by the U.S. Forest Service, the Robertson Draw fire burns on Wednesday, June 16, 2021, south of Red Lodge, Mont. The fire grew rapidly Tuesday amid a heat wave and gusting winds. (Amy Hyfield/U.S. Forest Service via AP)

BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — A Montana firefighting agency imposed a 48-hour stand-down of its aircraft after a helicopter crash landed and burned in heavy winds.

The sidelining of the state Department of Natural Resources Conservation fleet of seven helicopters and three fixed-wing aircraft comes as Montana’s fire season has grown dramatically more severe this week. Numerous major blazes ignited across central and southern Montana as officials said the fire season was off to an unusually early start.

Minor injuries were reported among the five agency personnel aboard the Bell UH-1H (Huey) helicopter that crashed near a roadway while involved in a fire east of Townsend.

Fires Stoked by Heat, Wind Force Evacuations in MT

The 48-hour stand down started Tuesday night and was first reported by the Independent Record newspaper. Aviation personnel involved in the accident were being debriefed. The results of the state’s investigation will be given to federal aviation officials, according the natural resources agency.

The helicopter that crashed was one of two the agency deployed to help fight the fire near Townsend.

One non-state helicopter was already in use on the blaze, and four more arrived Wednesday, said Erin Fryer with the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest.

“We worked through it just fine,” she said. “The nice part is it’s early in the season and we have access to more resources than we would normally.”

Natural Resources agency spokesperson Paige Cohn said the temporary grounding of its aircraft would not have “any significant effect on our ability to carry out our mission critical duties.”

The largest fire in the state, burning southeast of Red Lodge near Yellowstone National Park, destroyed eight houses and other buildings, and 13 outbuildings and other structures, officials said.

The human caused fire, located in the Robertson Draw area along the state line with Wyoming, has burned more than 37 square miles (97 square kilometers). Its advance slowed overnight Wednesday after the fire exploded the previous day amid record heat and strong winds.

Some evacuation orders were lifted, but they remained in effect in some rural areas southeast of Red Lodge and portions of the Custer-Gallatin National Forest remained closed.

No natural resource agency aircraft have been used in the fire, said Custer-Gallatin National Forest spokesperson Amy Hyfield, adding that she’s heard no concerns that the grounding of its fleet affected the response.

Officials have not released further details on how the fire started and it remains under investigation by law enforcement.

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