HELENA — As firefighters have battled wildfires across Montana this week, the U.S. Forest Service’s air tanker base at the Helena Regional Airport has played a central role.
This week, the base has already loaded about a dozen planes with fire retardant. It is one of only a few bases in the region that can handle all sizes of air tankers, from small single-engine planes to the so-called “Very Large Air Tankers” like the DC-10.
On Thursday morning, it took just six minutes for crews to put 3,000 gallons of retardant onto an Avro RJ-85, which was sent to assist on the Robertson Draw Fire burning near Red Lodge.
Leaders say the tanker base doesn’t typically open until July 7. In light of the serious fire situation Montana has already seen, though, they have already ramped up to full operations. After fires started Sunday afternoon, planes were using the base by noon the next day.
“This base is specifically important because it’s helping save lives and property by being able to quickly get retardant onto the fire,” said Chiara Cipriano, public affairs officer for the Helena-Lewis and Clark National Forest. “The service center here allows us to serve all of Montana.”
In a case of fortuitous timing, the base’s opening on Monday came just a day after the Helena Regional Airport completed a reconstruction project on the main runway, which had closed the airport to large commercial planes for a week.
As the fire season continues, Forest Service leaders are reminding the public that it’s important not to fly any drones around a wildfire area. If a drone gets too close to where firefighters are getting air support, all aircraft have to be pulled out of the air.
Cipriano said the best rule of thumb is not to operate drones within five miles of a wildfire.