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Wildfire, fire management and air quality news for western Montana and the Northern Rockies.

Bullock On Montana Fires: 'Money Won't Be An Issue'

A satellite photo showing the Lodgepole complex fires in Montana.
A satellite photo showing the Lodgepole complex fires in Montana.

On Sunday, Governor Steve Bullock declared a state of emergency in Montana because of wildfires. MTPR's Eric Whitney spoke to him Monday afternoon about what that means on the ground.

Eric Whitney: Governor you just came from a fire briefing, what did you hear?

Steve Bullock: Well for this time of year it's significant. I mean we have 19 major fires burning in Montana and that's in both eastern Montana and western Montana. So we are in the middle of the fire season, and it's a hot one, and it's a little earlier than any of us would want for sure.

Eric Whitney: Why did you declare a state of emergency. And what does that change for the teams that are on the ground fighting fires in Montana today?

Steve Bullock: The executive order that I signed yesterday allows me to direct state resources including the National Guard, to help fight fires in Montana. That can include financial resources personnel and equipment as well.

Eric Whitney: So have you authorized the release of any resources or do you have any plans to mobilize the National Guard or take any other significant action?

Steve Bullock: Certainly no National Guard has been officially requested or deployed, but the needs are being evaluated constantly. Also at some point you get fatigue when you have fires all across the state. So to make sure that they're prepared they're ready if we have to deploy them, just makes sense right now for sure.

Eric Whitney: Do the firefighters in Montana have the resources they need to meet the challenge?

Steve Bullock: Talking to the incident commanders, the answer is yes as of now. I think that there are more fires burning in Montana than anywhere else in the country. It's often just geography that can be the challenge. The Lodgepole fires over 200000 acres. Or even Northern Rockies said they're shipping up additional equipment, but getting from other places to northeastern Montana and southeastern Montana and other places can take a little bit of time. But all those that kind of are on my team, and then those directly on the front line are saying we're getting the resources that we need right now.

Eric Whitney: What's the status of the state firefighting fund at the moment?

Steve Bullock: The estimate is so far this fire season we've spent about 10 million dollars. The fire fund is over — it's north of $60 million. And it's something that we didn't even have until a couple of sessions ago. There will be money transferred out of it right now, and that's based on the last legislative session. But, that, certainly, the availability of money in that isn't causing me any concern.

Eric Whitney: Regarding the legislative action. You quoted a number north of $60 million. The reports I've been seeing the media say that the money diverted leaves it at about $30 million. Is that inaccurate?

Steve Bullock: That will be correct. I think they'll be about a 30 million dollar transfer tomorrow. If all four triggers are hit. And would still leave you know $30 million in.

Eric Whitney: So there's $30 million minus the $10 million that you say has been spent, for a net of about $20 million left,is that accurate?

Steve Bullock: I'd have to double check. And we haven't transferred any money based on Senate Bill 261 yet. So as far as the exact dollars that will be after that transfer and assuming or if all four triggers are hit, you're probably talking a couple more days to find out the exact dollars as bills are coming in as well.

Eric Whitney: Regarding the state firefighting fund. If the money in that fund is not adequate to meet the needs of Montana this fire season, what happens then?

Steve Bullock: You know, money certainly won't be an issue. We're going to deploy every resource necessary to protect Montanans and their property. It's a little early to say at what point would you have real significant challenges. What we used to do prior to us coming together and establishing and the fire fund would essentially just be running up the tab and dealing with it at the start of the next legislative session.

Eric Whitney: Regarding the executive order that allows you to commit additional resources I guess beyond the National Guard. Are those financial resources like beyond the state firefighting fund? Can you give me a little more description on on what other financial or other resources the executive order potentially frees up?

Steve Bullock: Two different things. There's an emergency fund that the state government has that, it's about $16 million a year, that at times for everything from shelter needs to feed needs and things that local jurisdictions can apply. We can free up some of that money. First often the counties have to expand what's — it's a little wonky — but additional two mills of their resources to do so. So that's one avenue. Another thing is that we need to make sure our federal partners are stepping up and we're working with local governments to ask FEMA, on a fire management assistance grant which would also provide more funding to get these fires under control.

Eric Whitney: I've been seeing some criticism on social media specifically from the Lodgepole complex that there haven't been enough personnel on that fire. What's your sense specifically on the Lodgepole complex of whether the federal partners and the state are doing enough to help the people out there?

Steve Bullock: Well I had a good long talk with the incident commander on the ground yesterday. And I said, 'what more do you need.' And he says, 'we're getting what we need.' It's one of these where certainly some of the resources come from other states, so that can take, with the size of our geography, some time. But, from the perspective of both firefighter personnel from sort of the air side of that and the equipment side, it's a big and significant fire. But he said that he's feeling comfortable with both the equipment that they're getting and the personnel.

Eric Whitney: Talking to the fire managers here in western Montana, they've been saying that competition is pretty tight for air resources and other resources they need.

Steve Bullock: In my discussions with folks on the ground, we are getting the resources we need. Resources are traveling from other places, indeed around the country. Look, it's hot out there in all corners of the state. It's dry out there. For what we have, they're comfortable that we're getting what we need at this point. Now that's not to say that we're not going to have a whole heck of a lot more fires which will even further stretch things.

Eric Whitney: So I think I just have one more on the executive order and I think I heard you say that none of those emergency resources have yet been requested. How does the decision get made to activate the resources that are enabled by the executive order?

Steve Bullock: Yes it really is, Eric, a case by case basis of talking to folks on the ground saying how stretched are your crews, what degree fatigue is, what might be needed. And that can be everything from aircraft to, at times when you have to evacuate, National Guard soldiers and airmen to show up there. It allows me the opportunity to both deploy the Guard and utilize additional financial resources that wouldn't be able to without the executive order.

Eric Whitney: Is there anything else you want people to know about the state's response to the wildfires in Montana right now?

Steve Bullock: That all Montanans and anybody visiting Montana has to be very very vigilant about fires in their area, obeying any evacuation orders. Make sure we're doing everything we can not to spark additional fires, but also then working with the firefighters in the communities. Let them do their job. These are incredible professionals, sacrifice a lot, and we got to let them do their job.

You can find Montana wildfire news on our website anytime.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.
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