HELENA – The U.S. government abruptly reversed itself Thursday and said it will offer aid to Montana for the cost of fighting the nation’s largest wildfire, which has destroyed 16 homes and prompted 34 states to send crews and equipment.
The Federal Emergency Management agency on Sunday rejected Montana’s original application for a grant that would pay for 75 percent of the state’s firefighting costs for the four fires burning through open plains and farmland in eastern Montana.
State officials immediately appealed the decision. Gov. Steve Bullock asked FEMA administrator Brock Long in a phone call to reconsider, and the three members of Montana’s congressional delegation sent Long letters of appeal.
On Thursday, FEMA officials sent the state’s Disaster and Emergency Services division a one-line email that said, “Please be advised that the Lodgepole Fire Complex has been approved” and assigned it a FEMA code.
The Lodgepole Complex is the name for the fires that have burned 422 square miles (1,093 square kilometers) of state, federal and privately owned land at a cost $6 million to date, according to the Northern Rockies Coordination Center. It was not immediately clear how much of that cost — which also includes federal firefighting efforts — would fall under the grant awarded to the state.
FEMA spokesman Jerry DeFelice said the state’s appeal contained additional information that was either not included or was incomplete in the original application about the fire’s economic impact, potential to spread and strain on state and local resources. It was forwarded to the agency’s Washington headquarters, where it was approved, he said.
The grant will allow the state and affected counties and towns to recover most of the costs on everything from the use of firefighting equipment to sheriff’s deputies controlling traffic in the fire zone until the fires contained. About 600 people had contained 62 percent of the fire area by Wednesday morning.
Bullock, U.S. Rep. Greg Gianforte and U.S. Sens. Steve Daines and Jon Tester all rushed out statements taking credit for the grant’s approval.
DeFelice said he could not speculate on whether political pressure influenced the federal agency’s decision to reverse course and accept the state’s application.
A spreadsheet attached to FEMA’s acceptance email shows that 41 applications to the agency’s Fire Management Assistance Grant Program have been approved for the fiscal year that ends September 30, and 16 have been denied.
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