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

Montana Firefighting Fund Significantly Short Going Into Wildfire Season

BLM firefighters stand near their firetruck as smoke rises up in the background.
Bureau of Land Management

Montana has just over $4 million in its firefighting reserve fund at the start of what’s expected to be ripe conditions for a substantial fire season. That means the state is significantly short of having the cash on hand needed cover the costs of even an average season. 

But Governor Steve Bullock says fire suppression won’t be limited this season, despite depleted funding reserves.

Last season the state’s fire bill ran up close to $70 million, more than three times the 10-year average. On June 1, the state transferred $40 million into the firefighting reserve fund, but most of  that money went out the door immediately to pay for last year’s costs.

Still, Bullock says, like last year, local, tribal, and federal agencies will fight fires as needed, and the state will figure out its tab later.

“As far as how we’ll address it, it’s way too premature to talk about that. What I can convey to both Montanans and to any member of the Legislature that are saying ‘Well, now what do we do?’ I’d say that we will address it. And I will expect the Legislature to be partners in figuring out how to do that. ”

Bullock got the forecast for this year’s fire season at the annual governor’s fire briefing Thursday from experts including Michael Richmond, a meteorologist with the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.

“My hunch would be that it would be a little bit later starting season than last year, but a longer one.”

Richmond says despite the best snowpack in areas of the state since the late 1990s, most of that’s already gone.

“And it all flushed out real quickly as we saw, we had flooding. We actually have less snow in the mountains right now than we did at this time last year.”

Richmond says above average temperatures are expected this summer from central Montana westward, with the driest conditions west of the continental divide. September, October and November are also expected to bring above average heat for the entire state.

Fire officials in Montana say there could be competition for federal  firefighting resources heading into this season if dry conditions continue through much of the Southwest United States.

Corin Cates-Carney manages MTPR’s daily and long-term news projects. After spending more than five years living and reporting across Western and Central Montana, he became news director in early 2020.
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