Money Runs Low as Wildfires Continue to Torch Montana

By MATT VOLZ | August 4, 2017

Montana’s worst fire season in years is expected to scorch the drought-stricken landscape well into fall, long after the state’s firefighting reserves run out thanks to politicians diverting millions of dollars to fill a budget shortfall.

There is only $12 million left of the $63 million in the firefighting fund in June, and the state is burning through that at a rate of $1.5 million a day, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director John Tubbs said Tuesday.

“We will use up the remaining balance in fairly short order,” he said.

The state’s financial worries come as forecasters for the National Interagency Fire Center predict that eastern Montana, southern California and the western Dakotas could be exposed to major wildfire threats into October or November.

A wet winter and spring produced thick grasses in the region, but a hot June melted the snow and dried out the vegetation, leaving it vulnerable to lightning-caused fires, said Bryan Henry, a meteorologist for the fire center.

The threat of major wildfires also will remain high throughout August in northern Nevada and parts of the Northwest and northern Great Plains, he said.

More fires are now burning in Montana than any other state. So far, they have torched 578 square miles (1,476 square kilometers) – an area larger than Wyoming’s Grand Teton National Park – through both mountain timber in the west and grasslands in the east.

That’s already surpassed the land burned every year since 2012, when 1,907 square miles (4,939 square kilometers) burned in Montana, costing the state $55 million.

Most of the fires started in July. The state spent $21 million fighting fires that month – equal to the amount it spent for the 12 months before that, Tubbs said.

The eruption of wildfires caught state lawmakers and officials off guard after forecasts in the spring predicted only a moderate fire season. That’s when lawmakers passed a measure mandating that $30 million be transferred out of the fire fund if the state’s income came in lower than revenue forecasts.

The revenue numbers came in last month, triggering the transfer and a slew of budget cuts across state government.

Republican Sen. Pat Connell of Hamilton said he is concerned that another major fire could erupt at any time without enough money left in the fire fund.

“We’ve got a long way to go through this fire season and I’m very scared about our future,” Connell said.

If the fund runs dry, state officials will still be able to respond to fires, Tubbs said. His department can pull up to $22 million from the state’s general fund, and an earlier fire disaster declaration by Gov. Steve Bullock authorized an additional $16 million.

But with the revenue shortfall, it’s not clear how much cash is available. Tubbs said that will be a challenge for the governor’s budget director.

Some relief came when the U.S. government last week approved a grant that will allow the state to recover three-quarters of its costs to fight its largest fire burning in eastern Montana. The amount of the savings is not yet clear.

The state is also entering into cost-sharing agreements to fight fires with the U.S. Forest Service, which will also help, Tubbs said.

(AP writers Dan Elliott in Denver and Bobby Caina Calvan in Helena contributed to this report.)

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