California Fires Burn Local Funds

By Beacon Staff

A year after its budget was stretched by an intense fire season, Montana’s Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is enjoying the respite – and less red ink – of a summer with few big blazes. In sharp contrast, the U.S. Forest Service has watched its budget dwindle as the cost of fighting large fires in California and elsewhere has forced cuts across the board, including in the Northern Region and the Flathead National Forest.

At the federal level, the cost of fighting catastrophic fires comes out of the Forest Service’s regular operating budget. For the third year running, the agency has had to shortchange other activities to meet it.

Congress appropriated $1.2 billion to the agency for firefighting this fiscal year. In a memo last month to regional foresters, chief of the Forest Service, Abigail Kimbell, said spending on fires could reach $1.6 billion this year, about half the agency’s total budget. Some fire-policy analysts have predicted that costs will climb closer to $1.9 billion.

To make up the shortfall, the agency started transferring money in the middle of August, and expects to take a total of $400 million from other areas through the rest of the year, Kimball wrote.

“I recognize this direction will have a significant effect on agency operations,” she said in the memo. “The agency is doing all it can to reduce suppression costs. However, we must be in a position to protect life and property from wildfire, and do so within the funds available to the agency.”

Money will be coming from restoration projects, building maintenance, roads funds, land acquisition plans, research and other areas.

The Forest Service’s Northern Region includes 25 million acres spread over Washington, northern Idaho, Montana, North Dakota and northwestern South Dakota. It’s tasked with moving nearly $18 million from its budgets this month to help cover the fire tab, Rose Davis, spokeswoman for the region, said. Flathead National Forest’s share of that cost is $900,000.

“It will be felt all the way through the forests and the whole region,” Davis said. “I think individual forests have individual pains as far as where they’re going to have to tighten their belts, but overall it’s across the board.”

In Flathead National Forest, money will be siphoned from trail and roadwork, facility maintenance and planned projects that hadn’t yet been contracted or announced, spokeswoman Denise Germann said. Travel and unnecessary purchases will also be curtailed.

From Montana to California, the number and average size of wildfires has been growing nationally over the last decade and fire seasons are getting longer. At the same time, the number of homes along what officials call the wildland-urban interface, or where forests and structures abut or intermingle, continue to grow.

The intersection of these trends has strained state and federal firefighting budgets.

In Montana, there are more than 31,000 residences within the state’s wildland urban interface; almost 8,000 of those exist in Flathead County – more than any other county in the state.

Wildfires raged around the state last year, ballooning the state’s firefighting costs to about $53 million and forcing the Legislature to convene a special session in September to pay the bills. The lawmakers put aside more money for fires in future years and began looking at ways to mitigate the funding problem.

All told, agencies estimated there were more than 1,700 fires in 2007. The DNRC had fought 438 fires, totaling more than 85,000 acres.

This year, though, strong mountain snowpack and cool, wet spring weather have combined to put the state in a far better position. The DNRC has spent only about $3 million fighting wildfires this year compared to the some $50 million last year.

“This fire season has been slower than normal for us here and we’re very thankful for that,” Dan Cassidy, DNRC fire plan manager for the northwestern land office, said. “In my mind, that’s a big benefit for the taxpayer that they don’t have to foot that bill for fire.”

Last year at this time, Cassidy’s office – which covers about 1.8 million acres over five counties including Flathead – had 172 fires for a total of 99,534 acres. This year, those numbers have dropped to 111 fires and just 169 acres.

“What really drives the acreage and cost up are those larger fires, and that’s where you see the big difference between this year and last year,” Cassidy said. “In our region, the largest fire this year was the Lindbergh Lake fire and that was about 65 acres. Last year, we had the Chippy Creek fire at about 100,000 acres.”

While the decrease in fire activity means less fire suppression funds flowing into the state’s economy, fire officials and economists say the economic effects are less than that of charred homes and property. And, they add, local firefighters and contractors have kept plenty busy this summer – just further away from home.

“Anytime you can bring in new money from out of state that’s a good thing for Montana,” Barbara Wagner, economist with the state’s Department of Labor and Industry, said. “They’re earning incomes without the state suffering the effects of smoke and burnt property.”

The Forest Service’s funding struggles have renewed pressure on state and federal lawmakers, and they’ve begun to attack the problem on several fronts, from proposed taxes on homes in fire-prone areas to a bill that would change the way the national agency budgets for fires. Firefighting strategies are being debated and, at times, beginning to shift, albeit slowly and not without controversy.

And despite a slower fire season at home thus far, the debate over Montana’s fire funding will likely flare up again in the coming Legislature, as fires seem likely to erupt here in coming years.

“Another dry season and the costs can be right back up there,” Cassidy said.

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