Montana's governor on Friday called on federal officials to lift what he called nonsensical restrictions that bar the state from using some of its helicopters to fight nearly a dozen major wildfires burning largely out of control across the state.
Governor Steve Bullock, who declared a state of emergency earlier this week authorizing use of National Guard troops and aircraft along with state firefighters and helicopters, said in a letter to U.S. Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack that the federal rules were unnecessary obstacles to fighting the fires.
"I am doing my part to mobilize every available firefighting resource at my disposal, and make them available to all fire protection agencies," Bullock said in the letter. "I encourage you to do your part by directing leadership within your respective agencies to rescind this unnecessary and artificial restriction on Montana aircraft as soon as possible."
Bullock spokesman Mike Wessler said U.S. fire managers barred the use of UH-1H helicopters over federal land because they have objected to modifications to the state's fleet that made them faster and able to carry more water.
Bullock said in the letter that Montana pilots who have flown UH-1H helicopters on hundreds of wildland fire missions have been told to stand down as blazes broke out "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."
Federal fire officials did not immediately respond to request for comment Friday.
The modifications made on the fleet did not impact its flight worthiness and it has been used numerous times to battle blazes on state and private lands, with no accidents, Wessler told Reuters on Friday.
Bullock told Vilsack in his letter that in some instances state aircraft were flying above wildfires but were instructed by federal fire officials not to combat them.
"This makes no sense, and puts the safety and property of Montanans at risk," he said.
Montana has proved it is capable of safely and effectively operating a fleet of firefighting aircraft, said Bullock.
The Democratic governor added, "I continue to be frustrated by this unwarranted and artificial limitation on interagency use of our aircraft."
Bullock's letter comes as U.S. fire managers have said the nation's firefighting resources, including crews and aircraft, are stretched thin amid a season that has brought destructive and even deadly fires to the U.S. West.
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