Wildfire Bill Tops $100 Million

By Beacon Staff

HELENA (AP) – The first meeting of a legislative committee charged with investigating wildfire costs learned that the state’s firefighting bills have surpassed $100 million for the first time in recent years.

Lawmakers were told Monday that the state’s bills for the 2007 fire season totaled $107 million. Most is being paid by the federal government, but the state is still on the hook for about $43 million after most of the bills have been tallied.

The state’s share is more than double that seen during an average fire season, a Legislative Fiscal Division report said.

Lawmakers met in September during a special session to allocate money for the fires this summer, and set up a special $40 million account to pay for future fires.

The new Fire Suppression Interim Committee, established during that special session, is looking at ways fire costs should be dealt with in the future, including different ways they might be reduced.

State Forester Bob Harrington cautioned the panel that there will be no simple policy decisions that can fix the situation. He mentioned such problems as a trend toward more large-scale fires and issues with the so-called wildland-urban interface.

“There is no silver bullet to this; there are lots of reasons why we across the West are seeing the situation we do,” he said. “It is simply too complex, and it is getting more so by the day.”

The panel will hold meetings in communities affected by fires, including Miles City, Libby, Thompson Falls, Lewistown and Hamilton.

Montana had 1,763 fires this past summer that burned about 740,000 acres.

Fire costs appear to be going up dramatically, the panel was told at its meeting in Helena. Since 2002, the most expensive fire season before this past summer was in 2004 at close to $80 million.

Lawmakers said they expect federal support to decline in future years, meaning the state will have an even larger burden to carry.

“At that point, it’s going to be a very serious conversation,” said Sen. Dave Lewis, R-Helena.