On June 15, a Montana Department of Natural Resources & Conservation (DNRC) helicopter responding to the Deep Creek Canyon Fire was forced to make a hard landing near Highway 12.
There were five people aboard when it crashed into the ground, and it wasn’t long until the wreckage was engulfed in flames and thick black smoke. Thankfully, all of the crew and passengers aboard were able to safely evacuate, thanks in large part to Montana Highway Patrol Trooper Amanda Villa.
Earlier that day, the Deep Creek Fire jumped Highway 12 and exploded from around 180 acres to more than 2,000 acres. Law enforcement had closed the road between Townsend and White Sulphur Springs for public safety.
“I was trying to find a Broadwater County deputy to piggyback on to figure out our long-term plan for roadblocks,” explained Villa. “As I pulled in next to the deputy to talk with him I could see the helicopter crash right in front of us.”
Upon arriving at the helibase, the helicopter experienced adverse winds, which caused a hard landing of the aircraft. At impact, the aircraft spun right about 120 degrees and rolled to the left into an upside-down position.
Villa quickly put her vehicle in park and rushed to the wreckage to see if anyone was still alive.
“I didn’t know how far it had dropped from. I noticed somebody was trying to get out of the window and rushed over. Once he was out I yelled if there was anyone else inside,” recalled Villa.
The helicopter manager had managed to kick the helicopter windshield out and flag down Villa. There were four more people still in the downed aircraft.
Unknown to Villa, the pilot had realized the engine was still running and located the fuel shutoff switch. Yet even with the switch hit, the back end of the craft was on fire and the flames were growing.
“I went to the window and just kind of helped people crawl out onto my back to pull them out of the helicopter since the whole back of the helicopter was currently on fire,” she recalled.
Villa says she’s just thankful she was at the right place at the right time and had help on the scene.
In the dashcam footage, the Broadwater Deputy can be seen running to the wreck as well, checking on those that had gotten free of the wreck. Between law enforcement, the helicopter crew and nearby fire personnel, they were able to get everyone away from the burning helicopter and get people medical attention.
The crew of the DNRC helicopter was assessed by medical staff at both the Billings Clinic Broadwater in Townsend and St. Peter’s Health in Helena. All are doing well, with only minor injuries reported.
According to DNRC, the crew of the helicopter are extremely grateful for the quick actions and heroic shown by Trooper Villa.
“I just saw some of them and they were doing well,” said Villa. “Everybody was able to walk away from it, which is a good job by the pilot and crews using their safety equipment.”
The June 15 accident was the first reporter helicopter accident in the history of the DNRC aviation program. The DNRC helicopter pilot insisted on having a toxicology report done that day while they were being checked for injuries. That report came back clean.
According to the SAFECOM report on the incident, DNRC Air Operations staff and safety officers believe this was a preventable accident had more specific reconnaissance procedures been followed that would have given the pilot more time to evaluate the wind conditions at the helibase. Before the report was completed, the crew independently decided to initiate retraining. DNRC Air Operations will begin retraining the pilot in wind evaluation and recognition of adverse wind conditions. Additionally, DNRC Air Operations will also retrain in the areas of aerodynamics with special attention given in the areas of settling with power and loss of tail rotor effectiveness.
More than 80 percent of wildfires in Montana are human-caused. The Deep Creek Canyon Fire’s cause was human in nature, but still unconfirmed as to the source as of June 20. DNRC wants to remind people that when a person is careless and creates a wildland fire, no matter the size they are putting firefighters and others in harm’s way.
According to Villa, there was no hesitation in rushing towards the crash and helping people. As she puts it, that’s the job.
“I think at one point in my mind while I was helping them out I thought to myself that this helicopter could blow up at any minute. But I knew that I just couldn’t stand there and let those people stay in there while it was on fire. My biggest concern was we need to get these people out, we need to get away from here and that was focus number one.”
The true character of a person is often revealed during times of crisis. Many of us like to think we’d know how we would react, but until the situation is right in front of us there’s no way of knowing for sure.
As for Trooper Villa, the June 15 helicopter incident reaffirmed what the Montana Highway Patrol has known about her for years. During a crisis, she’s someone that rushes in where there’s danger, looking for people in need and helping where she can.