BILLINGS, Mont. (AP) — Montana’s firefighting aircraft returned to duty Friday as officials sought even more personnel and aircraft ahead of a shift in the weather that could stir up a large blaze on the Wyoming border.

A red flag warning — indicating critical fire weather conditions — was issued for areas in southern Montana and northern Wyoming through Saturday evening. Dry and unusually warm weather, accompanied by gusts, was predicted.

A helicopter crash earlier this week grounded the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation’s fleet as major wildfires broke out.

An initial review released by the agency Friday blamed the crash landing on heavy winds. But it said the accident was preventable had the pilot followed procedures that would have given him more time to evaluate the conditions as the helicopter came in for a landing.

Five agency personnel were aboard the Bell UH-1H (Huey) helicopter when it crashed Tuesday alongside Highway 12, rolled and burned while returning to base during the fight against a fire east of Townsend.

A crew member kicked out a windshield so the occupants could escape, helped by a state trooper who came on the scene, the review said. The pilot had neck and back pain, and a crew member’s face was covered in blood, according to the review. All of the helicopter’s occupants were taken to hospitals and released later that night, officials said.


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