Seven weeks into fiscal year, Montana's $62M firefighting fund i - KPAX.com | Continuous News | Missoula & Western Montana

Seven weeks into fiscal year, Montana's $62M firefighting fund is almost empty

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Forest fires continue to burn in MT -- and eat up firefighting fund Forest fires continue to burn in MT -- and eat up firefighting fund

Less than two months into Montana’s fiscal year, the state’s $62 million firefighting fund is all but empty, drained by summer wildfire costs and a budget-transfer bill.

Bullock administration officials said the fund could be empty by next week, as fires continue to burn across the state, with no weather relief in sight.

Yet the administration said it will continue its strategy of “aggressive initial attack” on fires, to try to keep small fires from expanding, and find the money elsewhere to fund the ongoing effort.

“Our first priority is to continue fighting every wildfire until fire season is over,” said John Grassy, spokesman for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation (DNRC). “The issue of funding will be addressed when the season ends.”

He said the state can dip into the governor’s $16 million emergency fund, or elsewhere in the DNRC budget authority, and also will continue to pursue federal assistance, including grants from the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA).

The state created its special firefighting fund several years ago. The fund had $62 million at the start of the fiscal year on July 1.

But a budget-transfer bill passed by 2017 Legislature removed $30 million from the fund this month, to cover shortfalls across state government when tax revenue came didn’t meet expectations, and the state has spent nearly $30 million already this summer fighting fires.

Tens of thousands of acres of forest and grassland have burned so far this summer in Montana and several large fires continue to burn.

The federal government covers much of the cost of firefighting on federal lands, but Montana also bears a portion of the cost.

Grassy said the final cost-sharing won’t be determined until months after the fires are out.

The Bullock administration said it believes the federal government should start its own dedicated firefighting fund, like Montana.

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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