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

Why There's Only $4 Million In Montana's Firefighting Fund

the 2017 Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake
The 2017 Rice Ridge Fire near Seeley Lake

The State’s fire fighting savings account started this month with the second lowest balance since it was created a decade ago.

There’s only about $4 million in the fund’s reserves for this fire season. That’s about a fifth of what the state needs to cover an average fire season bill.

But John Tubbs, the head of Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, says that won’t stop the state from sending out crews and aircraft to put out fires this year.

“When the balance is low, firefighting will remain a priority and we go into the supplemental appropriations approach,” he says. 

That means DNRC will spend whatever it has to to fight fires, pulling in money it’s set aside for other purposes, with the expectation that during the next legislative session lawmakers will backfill that spending, through what’s called a supplemental appropriation.

While the state gets some federal reimbursement and it can draw on other emergency funds, Tubbs says it isn’t ideal for the state’s fire reserves to get zeroed out.

“It is better to have the fire fund with a balance so that we don’t impact the next Legislature."

When DNRC has to ask the Legislature to backfill its firefighting costs, it eats into what the state can build in for its next budget. The cost of the 2017 fire season had lot to do with last year’s state budget crisis, and, Nancy Ballance who sits on the Legislative Finance Committee, says depending on what happens this fire season it could happen again.

“If we look at the possibility of an extreme fire season like we had last time, then yes we do see a potential shortfall in 2019-2021 that we will need to cover somehow when we go into the next budget session," Ballance said. 

Last summer, the state’s firefighting costs were far in excess of the savings built up in the fire fund. That issue was compounded after, in the regular session, lawmakers took out half of the fire fund to plug other holes in the state budget.

Then, after the big firefighting bills were added up, Governor Bullock called a special legislative session in November, in part to pay off 2017 firefighting costs, and to provide money for this year’s fire season.

Lawmakers were able to set aside money to pay last year’s fire debt, but then political debates stalled. Together, lawmakers and the governor failed to set aside much money to fight fires this year.

“I’m not surprised that the balance is lower than we had hoped," says Senate Minority leader Jon Sesso, also a member of the Legislative Finance Committee.

Sesso says Republicans didn’t agree to tax increases, including some on lodging and rental cars, that could have raised more money for the state, including its firefighting costs.

“When we left the special session we left with our work unfinished," Sesso says. "Proposals that we walked in to the special session weren't passed. We didn’t put one extra percent on beds and we didn’t do the rental cars. And we didn’t do the fee that we hoped to raise on stock brokers; all of which we thought, I thought, were very reasonable to raise the dollars necessary to replenish and to prepare a reasonable fund for calendar year 2018 fire season.”

Governor Steve Bullock also blames the Republicans for the lack of fire money available because they didn’t support his ideas to increase revenue through taxes.

When Republicans declined to vote for the proposed tax increases they instead passed legislation pushing for Governor Bullock to make a deal to extend the contract of the state’s only private prison in Shelby, run by CoreCivic. Some of the money from that deal would have gone into the fire fund.

Republican Senator Llew Jones says, “There had been the thought process that with Shelby included there would be enough for an average season, which is around $25 million.”

Governor Bullock negotiated with CoreCivic, but in April rejected a deal extending the private prison contract.

And, since the special session was called, additional fire costs from 2017 have stacked up, setting the state fire fund back even further.

Last month Governor Steve Bullock received his annual fire season briefing at Fort Harrison, in Helena, where forecasters said to expect above average temperatures and fire conditions running into the fall. News broke then that the fire fund had around four million dollars in it heading into the summer.

“As far as how we’ll address it, it’s way too premature to talk about it," Bullock said. "What I can convey to both Montanas and to any member of the Legislature that are saying 'well, now what do we do,' that we’ll address it. And I will expect the Legislature to be partners in figure out how to do that.”

It was at the same annual fire briefing last year that Bullock was told by forecasters the state would likely see average fire conditions in 2017. That forecast was wrong, and Montana’s government budget fell apart amid what turned out to be a historic fire season.

The ripples of that fiscal crisis left the state’s fire fund just under $20 million short of covering an average fire season. The extent of this year’s burn will have a lot to do with how big a budget challenge state lawmakers face when they return to the capitol in January.

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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