HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Gov. Greg Gianforte mobilized the Montana National Guard Thursday to assist in wildfire response as the entire state faces abnormally dry conditions contributing to fire risk.
The governor ordered two helicopter support crews, including 24 soldiers, to enter active duty.
The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation put in a request for military support to aid in wildland fire suppression efforts, after one of the agency's firefighting helicopters crash-landed and burned in heavy winds last month.
The Montana National Guard will provide one UH-60 Black Hawk crew out of Billings to assist in the eastern side of the state, and one CH-47 Chinook crew out of Helena to support the western side.
Nineteen large fires were burning in Montana as of Wednesday. The Alder Creek Fire in the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest is a top priority blaze in the nation as it threatens about 200 structures.
Since the beginning of the year, there have been about 1,500 fire starts in Montana — a third of them in July — burning around 300 square miles (780 square kilometers).
Montana entered the fiscal year, which began July 1, with a full fire suppression fund topping $100 million. Officials estimate nearly $8.9 million from it has been spent this month.
Montana is at the highest level of firefighting preparedness, meaning it is first in line for access to national resources. But it is competing with neighboring states also gripped by a drought that contributes to fire risk. Climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and causes bigger and more destructive wildfires.
Just over 5% of Montana is facing exceptional drought — the most severe category — according to U.S. Department of Agriculture figures released this week.