- The Washington Times - Thursday, July 12, 2012

The fire didn’t care what kind of federal land it was burning, but for sheriff’s deputies hovering over a blaze in northwestern Nevada last week, it made all the difference: If it was Bureau of Land Management property, they could legally drop the water they were carrying, but if it was Forest Service land, they were out of luck.

Unable to make a clear call, the Washoe County chopper pilot demurred and didn’t drop the 323 gallons of water in the tank.

Local fire officials said the helicopter’s help would have been valuable in fighting the Pinehaven wildfire, which burned more than 200 acres near Reno and which investigators said likely was the work of an arsonist.

Now, the tangle of federal rules that left the chopper in limbo has some lawmakers questioning when regulations became more important than fighting fires.

“We’re approved for fighting fires on [Bureau of Land Management] lands and Washoe County private lands. However, we are not yet approved for dropping water on Forest Service land fires,” said Deputy Doug Russell, chief pilot for Washoe County’s Sheriff’s Office. “Because we didn’t know the exact jurisdiction of property at that moment, we did not drop water.”

The problem is the helicopter is credentialed by one federal agency — the Bureau of Land Management — but has yet to get the OK from the Forest Service.

Why isn’t exactly clear even now, more than a week after the chopper had to wave off helping fight the Pinehaven fire.

The HH-1H Huey helicopter, the jewel of Washoe County’s Regional Aviation Enforcement Unit (Raven), first won approval to fight fires on Bureau of Land Management land last year after a three-year process.

Deputy Russell said the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management have the same standards for firefighting aircraft. In fact, the same exact unit conducts the helicopter and pilot inspections for both agencies.

He said a team arrived in May to look over the Huey and told him it would recommend it for Forest Service approval, but it has not been granted so far. Asked what the holdup was, Deputy Russell was at a loss.

“It’s a great question for Forest Service. I have not been told why we have not yet been approved,” he said.

The Forest Service said the problem is with Washoe County.

Erin O’Connor, a spokeswoman for the Forest Service’s intermountain region, which includes Nevada, said the service can’t let a helicopter operate unless it has an operating agreement, and she said the county hasn’t asked for one.

“The Forest Service and the regional aviation officer has had information conversations with Washoe County about the use of Raven,” Ms. O’Connor said. “Washoe County has never initiated the formal process to get a cooperating agreement in place with the Forest Service, and without an agreement between the Forest Service and Washoe County, the Raven helicopter cannot operate on national forest.”

It was unclear Thursday how that squared with Washoe County’s claim that it started the approval process a year and a half ago.

A Forest Service official for the Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest told the Reno Gazette-Journal, which first reported on the jurisdictional conflict, that the Forest Service might place higher standards on the aircraft, and said there’s also some confusion about the agency with which the Forest Service would contract the city of Reno or Washoe County.

Sen. Dean Heller, Nevada Republican, said it’s time for the federal government to figure out the process.

“There is no question the safety of aircraft fighting wildfires should be a priority,” he said. “However, when facing the possibility of a catastrophic wildfire, all resources should be made available.

“Clearly, the evaluation process should be revisited when an aircraft that has passed inspection for use by the sheriff’s department and another federal agency cannot be cleared for use in a timely manner.”

These issues matter, particularly out West.

The Bureau of Land Management controls about 245 million acres of land across the U.S., including 48 million acres in Nevada, or about two-thirds of the state. Forest Service lands cover 190 million acres of the U.S. and about 6 million acres of Nevada.

Rex McKnight, state fire management officer for the bureau in Nevada, said that when it first checked Washoe’s chopper, the bureau asked for some changes to meet specifications, and the county made the alterations.

The bureau then had to negotiate a fire-suppression agreement, and Mr. McKnight said that took about two years.

Washoe’s chopper was cleared before last year’s fire season and has fought nearly two-dozen fires. The sheriff’s department said the helicopter has saved millions of dollars of property from damage.

The Raven chopper is approved for action only at the beginning of wildland fires. Under federal law, agencies must try to steer firefighting to commercial aircraft.

Deputy Russell said his department isn’t trying to compete with commercial firms.

“We’re here for Washoe County. We want to help our citizens,” he said. “We’re not trying to take business away from anybody.”

Even without fighting the fire, Raven did take action on the Pinehaven blaze, the Gazette-Journal reported. It was part of the search for the arsonist.

• Stephen Dinan can be reached at sdinan@washingtontimes.com.

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