HELENA- – The Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation reports it has been a quieter fire season than usual in the state so far.
Agency leaders updated the state Environmental Quality Council Wednesday on the state’s wildfire outlook.
Michael DeGrosky, the agency’s fire protection bureau chief, said Montana has been “well below average” this year for the number of fires, acreage burned and firefighting costs.
“It is a considerably different story than when we spoke to you this time last year,” he said.
More than 1.2 million acres had burned across Montana by September in 2017 but this year, it has been closer to 100,000 acres burned.
By September of last year, DNRC had already spent about $62 million to fight the fires around Montana. The total state liability would eventually reach $74 million – much more than was available in the state fire suppression fund.
During a special legislative session last November, state lawmakers transferred $40 million into the fire fund. DNRC director John Tubbs said $36 million of that was used to pay for last year’s costs.
The state also negotiated a reduction in its liability for a fire near Seeley Lake, freeing up an additional $4 million. That left the state with a total available balance of about $8 million in the fund when wildfire season started.
DeGrosky said DNRC currently believes they’ll have some of that money left over at the end of the season. They’re expecting to spend a total of between $4 million and $5 million.
Wildfire damage wasn’t spread evenly around the state. Tubbs said northwestern Montana was hit especially hard, with incidents like the Howe Gulch Fire and Boundary Fire burning in and around Glacier National Park.
“At least in northwestern Montana, it was a tough fire year,” he said. “The reason you’re not seeing those dollars necessarily on the state is most of it was federal protection, but we were there every day with the feds helping out.”
Despite Montana having a quieter fire season overall, DeGrosky said DNRC still had to deal with resource shortages.
Especially in August, the number of fires burning elsewhere in the country meant it was harder to bring incident management teams into Montana.
“Our fire environment just continues to get more and more challenging,” he said. “So even on a relatively easy year, we have a period during the peak of fire season where we run out of key resources, where we have to work together, we have to coordinate with our interagency partners.”
DNRC leaders said their forecasters predicted the state’s fire season would start later than usual and end later than usual – and that’s what they’re still expecting.
“As we look out, we don’t see that season-ending event coming yet,” said DeGrosky.
During Wednesday’s meeting, the Environmental Quality Council also discussed possible bills to adjust the state’s fire assessment fee.
Currently, owners of forested property have to pay the state a fee to support DNRC wildfire protection. Since those properties are primarily in western Montana, lawmakers have been looking for ways to spread the costs out more evenly to landowners across the state.
The council is currently looking at three proposals to adjust the fee. Each would use the fee to provide about one-third of DNRC’s annual fire preparedness budget, along with a new fund that would eventually pay for new state firefighting aircraft.
One draft bill would charge a fee on every parcel of land in the state. Another would put a fee on each parcel outside incorporated cities and towns, while the third would cover those same properties but adjust the fee based on acreage.
Members could decide Thursday whether to forward any of the proposed bills to the state Legislature during next year’s session.
-Jonathon Ambarian reporting for MTN News