Montana's firefighting fund will run dry by the end of the week, forcing state officials to begin drawing money from emergency reserves to keep crews and equipment on the front lines of the country's worst collection of wildland fires.
As of today, more than $168 million of mostly federal money has gone into battling about 80 large fires that have charred more than 400,000 acres statewide.
The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation says the spending has included almost all of the $32 million set aside in the state’s fire response fund. That fund had been twice as large, but state lawmakers siphoned about half the money away to cover revenue shortfalls in the state budget.
State Budget Director Dan Villa stressed that other money is available when the fund is depleted.
Montana Senator Jon Tester talked about firefighting costs Wednesday in Billings. He visited the Interagency Fire Command Center there and again criticized the U.S. Forest Service’s budgeting process. He says over half of the U.S. Forest Service’s budget goes toward fighting wildfires.
“And, by the way, they predict in two years it’ll be two-thirds,” Tester said.
That’s one of the reasons why Tester is advocating for Congress to re-classify wildfires as natural disasters, which would then allow the state to tap into federal emergency funds directly rather than applying for FEMA relief grants.
“This idea has been around now for five years that I know of, and we haven’t been able to get it passed," Tester said. "But we’ll continue to advocate. The truth is, the fire seasons are getting longer and more intense and we need to start dealing with it in a different way. Otherwise, there isn’t the money to do the kind of work, particularly in the woods, that will help prevent the explosiveness of these fires.”
Tester said he asked firefighters on the line at the fires near Seeley Lake and Lincoln last week if Montana is getting everything it needs to fight the fires here.
“And they said that they were in good shape. They said that resources are very thin, because of the fires that are going on all over the country, but so, far, so good.”
Tester said he learned from state and federal fire managers at the meeting Wednesday that money for restoration efforts once a fire is contained may not be as big an issue as what he’d thought initially.
But he said that he’ll make sure Congress knows that federal financial resources allocated toward fighting fires take into account all the resources necessary for restoration efforts.
“There’s gonna have to be some dollars for restorative work and we will do our level best on the Interior subcommittee, of which I sit, to make sure they have the resources to do that, because it’s a critical part of the ecosystem and it’s a critical part of the resource.”
There are currently 14 large fires burning in Montana, and numerous smaller ones. Firefighters continue to snuff out new fires almost daily that were started by both lightning strikes and people.