Half of state fire suppression fund spent

Smoke rises from the Corral Fire, outside Helena, in June

The long fire season is continuing to draw down state coffers.

The state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation has used about half of the fund it set out for fire suppression for the season.

The Montana Legislature has been putting money away in a fire suppression fund since the end 2007’s extreme fire year.

DNRC Deputy Director Joe Lamson says relative calm the last couple years has allowed the state to stash about $16 million into that fund. Lamson says so far this fire season the state has burnt through about half of that.

“We’ve used a good portion of it, but we’ve still got a ways to go and hopefully we won’t have too terrible of a year,” Lamson said.

Although, Lamson says the state hasn’t spent as much money thus far as officials initially feared, despite consistent high temperatures and red flag conditions. At between $8 and $9 million spent so far by August– Lamson is crossing his fingers 2012 won’t end up looking like 2007.

“Well, I believe our cost in ’07 was $50 million dollars,” he said, “which is very substantial.”

If the state ends up spending more than what the fire suppression fund holds—the legislature will pay the bills after the fact. That’s how the state handled fire seasons 2007 and earlier.

Lamson says liability for a wildfire depends on where it starts. State lands—state funds. Federal public lands—federal funds. Private landowners can also be responsible for wildfire costs if one starts on their property.

Governor Brian Schweitzer met with the new Regional Forester for the U.S. Forest Service, Faye Krueger on Monday. Schweitzer says local, state, and the federal government each need to do a better job of making sure people are thinking about wildfire when building homes in the so-called wildland-urban interface.

“You’re going to spend millions,” Schweitzer said to Krueger, “we’re going to spend millions and most of the money we spend is to try to protect a few homes that never should have been built in the places they’re built and never should have been built in the way they’re built.”

He reminds landowners firefighters only save the homes they think they can save with the resources they have. Undertaking wildfire mitigation projects on private land in the wildland-urban interface is important, Krueger said.

“It’s incumbent on private landowners to protect their own homes, their own structures and so if they’re able to do that it saves the state and the federal government in wildfire suppression dollars,” she added.

Schweitzer says all sectors of government need to start challenging the way they spend money on wildfire. He says certain methods of fire suppression seeking to reduce fire danger over the last 100 years have sometimes actually led to bigger, more damaging fires down the road. He describes fires as an ecological necessity.

“Wildfires are part of the weather, and I know Smokey the Bear has been telling us since we were children and even before then that fire is bad. Smokey didn’t exactly have it right,” Schweitzer said.

And he believes landowners need to keep that in mind when deciding where to build their homes.




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