(Bloomberg) -- Tim Sheehy is a former Navy SEAL with a hole in his heart, a bullet in his arm, a plan to become Montana’s next US senator and a mission to fix America’s wildfire crisis. 

The 38-year-old is the founder and chief executive officer of Bridger Aerospace, which uses sophisticated aerial imaging and reconnaissance technology inspired by Sheehy’s time in the military to map fires, then sends gigantic tanker planes to carpet bomb the infernos with water. The industry has helped make him rich, while providing the adrenaline rushes he craves.

Now, without taking a step back from the business, he’s embarking on a new mission: seeking the Republican nomination to run against incumbent Senator Jon Tester in his adopted state. He’s got the support of billionaires Steve Schwarzman and Ken Griffin, former President Donald Trump (who Sheehy has also endorsed for his 2024 run) and much of the state’s GOP establishment.

The effort is likely to be a heavy lift. While there’s no public polling at this stage in the race, Tester has won three terms, routinely outperforming other Democrats on the state ballot by wide margins. The incumbent is chairman of both the Senate panel in charge of defense spending and the Veterans’ Affairs Committee, potentially blunting any advantage Sheehy would have with both current and former service members.

Managing a firefighting company in the midst of a surge in devastating blazes in the Western US along with a tight Senate race in what’s likely to be one of the most contentious election seasons in US history is a tricky proposition. On a recent tour of Bridger’s main hangar in Bozeman, Sheehy was excited to show off his planes and share his ideas for how to revamp wildfire management. 

“We’re not a software company. We’re not a yoga pants company. We don’t make dating apps. We’re saving people’s lives,” he said in the interview.  

Sheehy, who grew up in St. Paul, Minnesota, as the son of a software executive and homemaker, went to the Naval Academy in Annapolis in 2004, seeking to serve his country in the aftermath of the Sept. 11 attacks. 

After graduating, he served tours in Iraq and Afghanistan; he still has a bullet lodged in his arm from a classified operation. Then, in 2014, Sheehy’s military career came to an abrupt end during an underwater training mission when he developed a small hole in his heart resulting from a case of the bends. It wasn’t life threatening, but enough to force retirement on medical grounds.

So, adrift and not sure what his next step might be, he and his wife, Carmen, a fellow veteran, decided to move to Bozeman to be close to the mountains of Big Sky Country. They started two businesses that would use aerial surveillance to help the US government track illegal border crossings. Those were Bridger, which was named for an 1800s fur trapper and Western pioneer, and Ascent, which developed the aircrafts’ infrared camera technology.

Life Savings

In the first two years, Sheehy spent $380,000 of life savings and family contributions on a plane and building a patented infrared camera that would help detect people trying to sneak across the border. He subsisted on Veterans Affairs disability insurance, offering shares in his company to new staff in lieu of salaries, and living in a barn with his wife and infant daughter. 

The border control plan didn’t work, so the company pivoted to offering aerial reconnaissance for wildfires to state and federal agencies. In doing so, Sheehy stumbled into an industry ripe for a classic venture capital disruption. Tactics and equipment remained stuck in the 1960s, while factors including climate change, poor forestry management and a lack of dedicated firefighters had dramatically raised the wildfire threat and market opportunity. 

Bridger and Ascent took full advantage to rapidly grow market share. They battled some of the biggest blazes of recent years for government agencies. While working in Nevada in 2020, Sheehy earned his “air pirate” moniker fighting fires on federal lands despite only having a contract to work on state territory.

The business has been fruitful, with the $350 million sale of Ascent in 2020 personally netting Sheehy around $75 million. Bridger went public via a special purpose acquisition company in January 2023. The company has yet to turn a profit since selling shares, but his 17% stake is valued at about $46 million. That would make him one of the richest members of Congress should he be elected.

SPAC Listing

Sheehy acknowledges he’s benefited from the world of high finance, with his SPAC listing and early-stage capital from Schwarzman’s Blackstone Inc. But he laments how few companies share their success with employees via stock ownership plans, as he did with Bridger and Ascent, and worries about the equity market being dominated by just a few tech behemoths.

While growing the company, Sheehy’s pushing federal lawmakers to adopt a drastic overhaul of how the industry operates. 

Ideally, he’d like a dedicated branch of federal government, akin to the Coast Guard, with its own staff and budget. In the interim, he’s pushing for measures including better forest management, programs to make rural firefighting jobs more attractive, improved training and technology and longer term contracts for private contractors.  

It’s an increasingly pressing issue. Fires burned an average of 5.7 million acres annually over the past three years, quadruple the pace of the early 1980s, according to data compiled by the National Interagency Fire Center. Poor air quality is increasingly becoming a problem in the summer.

A model for many of these changes exists in Washington state, which overhauled its practices after more than 1 million acres burned in 2015.

Hilary Franz, Washington’s commissioner of public lands since 2017, implemented a plan that had helicopters at the ready, positioned firefighters in strategic hot spots and vastly increased logging to thin the forest, remove fuel and bring in revenue. In the last three years, 90% of fires in the state have been kept to under 10 acres in size.

Franz is a Democratic candidate for the US House this year, but Sheehy doesn’t hesitate to describe her and her work as “visionary.” He believes that fighting wildfires is one of the few areas where bipartisan cooperation is possible. 

Veterans Affairs

In response to questions, Tester’s office pointed to the work he’s done as chair of the Congressional Fire Services Caucus and his championing of a provision in the infrastructure bill that included $600 million for temporary pay increases and improved working conditions for wildland firefighters.

Sheehy was inspired to run by what he viewed as the disastrous US withdrawal from Afghanistan, but otherwise declined to comment on the campaign. He is passionate about veterans, often hiring them at Bridger. He advocates for tighter border control, perhaps unsurprisingly given his original business plan.

Republican Ryan Zinke, who represents Montana’s 1st Congressional District and is also a former Navy SEAL who presented Sheehy with a Bronze Star in 2015, said he encouraged his fellow veteran to run for the seat.

“There are very few resumes that are more outstanding than Tim’s,” Zinke said in an interview. “We need young, hard-charging patriots to join the ranks of Congress.”

Sheehy says he’s an environmentalist, who founded a farm-to-table cattle company in part to offer an alternative to foreign competition. A self-made capitalist, he’s skeptical that charities or governments can be effective at delivering complex services like health care. Still, he wants to protect entitlements like Social Security and Medicare.

He has a steep climb on his hands against Tester. Sheehy raised $5.3 million for his run in the last three months of 2023, including a $1.1 million from his own pockets, and had $1.3 million in his coffers at the end of last year, according to public Federal Election Commission filings. That puts him far ahead of anyone else in the Republican primary. US Representative Matt Rosendale dropped out of the race Thursday, just a week after entering. He cited Trump’s endorsement of Sheehy.

Sheehy has benefited from $2.3 million in spending from the super political action committee More Jobs, Less Government, whose single largest backer is Griffin, the founder and chief executive officer of hedge fund Citadel. 

Tester has raised $25.2 million for his reelection campaign and had $11.2 million on hand at the end of the year. Super PACs backing Tester have spent $20,000.

Sheehy is trying to overcome his opponent’s name recognition in part with retail politics — he’s happy to cross a sparsely populated state the size of Germany to further his campaign. No event is too small. Parker, a cab driver in Bozeman, recalled Sheehy visiting his child’s school in Three Forks on Veterans Day to talk about military service. 

Sheehy has promised to step down as CEO and put his assets into a blind trust should he be elected. He jokes that his 190 employees would probably appreciate him taking a new job.

“We have an awesome team. They don’t need me every day,” he said. “In fact, probably half the time I come into a meeting, I’m more of a pain in the ass than a help.”

--With assistance from Bill Allison and Zach C. Cohen.

(Updates to add Rosendale dropped out of race in 27th paragraph.)

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