Wildfire costs in Montana topping $63 million so far this year

The costs are adding up for this year’s wildfire season.

Officials with the US Forest Service say fires in Montana have cost the state and federal government a combined total of $63 million so far.

“This is the cost of actually fighting the fires and also any rehabilitation work done on the land following the fire,” said Forest Service Northern Region Spokesman Brandan Schulze.

The fire season is likely to die down in the next few weeks, but it’s not over yet.

That’s Forest Service Northern Region Spokesman Brandan Schulze. The $63 million splits between federal government entities like the Forest Service and the BLM and with the state government.

$63 million spent on fires covering over 750,000 acres.

Let’s put these figures into perspective. The price tag last year was a lot less–$40 million for the whole fire season. Though, 2011 was pretty meek—with fires burning about a fifth as much land as this year.

Now, let’s compare this year’s $63 million to 2007. Even though 2012 has already burned more acres than in ’07, the total bill for that year was $184 million—almost three times as much.

“A lot of times you can’t just look at the acreage and have it match up to the cost of the fire. It’s not a proportional amount,” Schulze said.

Shulze says the cost all depends on the terrain of the fire, the type of fuels (like heavy timber versus dry grassland), and the resources you’re protecting. It costs a lot more to protect houses, for instance.

Montana’s share of the fire costs this year is sitting around $24 million right now. And that’s the bill—none of it has been paid yet.

How will the state pay?

Well, remember 2007, the crazy expensive fire year I mentioned?

After that season, the Montana Legislature created a new fire suppression fund. $40 million in a fire-fighting reserve the state had never had before.

We’ve been drawing off it ever since. Now, of that $40 million—about $4.5 million remains.

$24 million bill minus 4.5–$19.5 to go.

Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director Mary Sexton says any wildfires declared emergencies by the Governor can be paid for through the Governor’s Emergency fund.

“Many of the Southeast Montana fires were designated emergencies,” Sexton said. Helena’s Corral fire too. That all adds up to 10 million.

$19.5 million minus $10 million. We’ve still got nine and a half million to pay for this fire season.

DNRC Director Sexton says the rest is paid from her Department’s operating budget, with the expectation that the 2013 Legislature will reimburse that money. That’s how fire bills were been paid historically, before the fire suppression fund—which, again, will be totally gone before the Legislature convenes.

“At this point in time, when the new Legislature comes into session, they’re going to have to consider whether they want to set up another fire suppression fund,” Sexton said.

And remember, the wildfire season is still going. The bill will keep getting bigger. State and Federal officials are asking the public to remain aware of the heat and dry conditions. Because the Forest Service says the majority of Montana wildfires this year have been caused by humans.


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