Montana may have a normal fire season, but it's still nothing to take for granted, according to the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
On Wednesday, Mike DeGrosky, DNRC Fire Aviation and Management Bureau Chief, told the Legislative Environmental Quality Council that long-range forecasts appear to indicate that Montana will an average fire season, but that still means plenty of fires.
“So we don’t want to lull Montanans into the false sense of security that ‘Oh, we’re going to have a normal fire season and that means it’s going to be without challenge.’ That’s definitely not the case,” DeGrosky said.
Forecast models show 12 of 17 meteorological indicators would lead to a normal season while two characteristics would contribute to a more severe season. However, DeGrosky said if the factors that cause convection increase, that would cause more lightning and tilt the chance toward more fires.
In an average season, the DNRC responds to more than 300 wildland fires that burn, on average, 132,000 acres and cost state taxpayers somewhere between $2 million and $3 million. Local governments will probably respond to 1,000 more fires, DeGrosky said.
The number of fires may be greater this year because Montana’s fire season started early. In February, the DNRC was already out fighting fires in southeastern Montana and other parts of the state, DeGrosky said. Fires also popped up in the Bob Marshall Wilderness in March.
Part of the reason is that those two parts of the state – southeastern Montana near Billings and the Rocky Mountain Front north of Helena - received insufficient moisture over the winter so they’ve been identified as “hot spots” heading into the fire season.
DeGrosky said the DNRC has been maintaining equipment and training employees and partners in preparation for the season, and the department has adequate finances to see the state through the season.
DNRC Forestry Division Chief Bob Harrington said the division has between $70 million and $78 million, depending on how much the division has to pay for outside help with last year’s firefighting.
Sometimes, the U.S. Forest Service or other states request Montana’s help with suppressing fires and vise versa. After a season is over, it can sometimes take three or four years to settle the debts for a particular year, although most take only a year or so, Harrington said. Depending on the severity of the fire season, such uncertainties can squeeze fire-fighting budgets.
Harrington estimated that Montana is still owed about $10 million for past fire seasons but he added that reduced Congressional funding is partly to blame for payment delays. The Forest Service acts as an intermediary for charges related to wildfires in every state but the agency has had to cut the staff employed to verify the expenses related to each wildfire. So, projects end up piling up and delays increase.
When a state has to declare an emergency and the Federal Emergency Management Agency gets involved, the additional oversight FEMA requires causes financial settlement to drag out more. Harrington used Texas as an example. Several years back, Texas had an 18-month fire season, had to declare an emergency and ended up spending $400 million on fire suppression. Texas and every state that helped out had to be paid, but with such a drawn-out operation, it took years.
“This is a national issue. It’s a huge problem not only for Texas but all of the states,” Harrington said. “For example, if we bring in fire resources from New Mexico to work on our fires, New Mexico will submit their bill to the Forest Service. As (the Forest Service) staff continues to decline, that slows down the process.”
Harrington said states contribute to the delay. His division requires full documentation to prove that an expense occurred on a fire that Montana is responsible for. Other states and entities do the same, Harrington said.
“That’s just good business, but it also goes slowly,” Harrington said.