HELENA – Wildfire contractors told the governor Monday that if they don’t get more state work, some of them could be out of business the next time Montana experiences a heavy fire season.
The group met Monday with Gov. Brian Schweitzer and the head of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, which often leads wildfire efforts. Their call for more work comes after three relatively small fire seasons that saw a dramatic drop in the state’s use of private contractors and their trucks.
The Northern Rockies Wildfire Contractors Association told Schweitzer the state should switch to contractors more often after local agencies perform the initial attack on a fire. The group argued such management could save the state money and free up the local agencies to be on call for house fires and their other usual work.
Schweitzer promised that the DNRC will revisit the issue — but without giving a clear indication if a potential remedy exists.
The state said any policy changes will have to make sense for taxpayers, and officials note that fire management and coordination among federal, state and local authorities is complex. The DNRC said the bids from the private contractors vary based on the specifics of an individual fire and its location and are not always less than what local governments charge.
The contractors said more than 200 engines are made available to the state by the group, made up mostly of small entrepreneurs.
They argued the local governments charge the state more for the use of an engine than a contractor does.
“All we are asking for is, when work is available, use us. That is our simple request,” said Troy Kurth, general manager of Rocky Mountain Fire Co. in Missoula.
The contractors’ proposal calls for keeping DNRC and Forest Service resources as the top option for extended attack, but placing more importance on using the contractors instead of local fire department resources for extended attack on fires.
State Sen. Jim Kean, D-Butte, attended the meeting in the governor’s office and said lawmakers looked into the issue several years ago and found there is no clear cost savings once all factors are weighed in. He said the “niche market” of wildfire contracting will sort itself out even if it is going through bad times right now.
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