Montana Asks FEMA Head to Ease Wildfire Assistance Requests

Bullock met with FEMA administrator Brock Long in Washington

By MATT VOLZ, Associated Press
Smoke from the Sprague Fire fills the Lake McDonald valley in Glacier National Park on Aug. 30, 2017. Greg Lindstrom | Flathead Beacon

HELENA — Montana Gov. Steve Bullock asked the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency on Thursday to make it easier to request U.S. government assistance as dozens of fires burning across the drought-stricken state drain its treasury and exhaust its emergency reserve funds.

Bullock met with FEMA administrator Brock Long in Washington as the federal agency responds to the devastation from Hurricane Harvey on the Gulf Coast and prepares for Hurricane Irma to make landfall on the East Coast.

The governor asked Long to exempt Montana from some of the requirements to qualify for a FEMA fire management assistance grant, and then to expedite the state’s grant requests when they come.

“We’ve had losses to homes, livestock, forage and infrastructure, and we’ve tragically lost the lives of two wildland firefighters,” Bullock said in a statement. “We are experiencing impacts to individuals and businesses across the state who have endured losses due to evacuations, hazardous air quality, and sustained threats to our tourism and recreation industries.”

Montana has spent more than $50 million on fire suppression since the beginning of July, depleting a $32 million reserve account and $16 million in additional emergency funds. Those costs don’t include U.S. government firefighters and equipment being used to respond to blazes on federal lands in the state.

Montana is particularly susceptible to fire this year with more than nine-tenths of its land mass in a state of drought. There has been scant rainfall this summer, leading to more than 1,560 square miles (4,040 square kilometers) burned to date, and no end in sight.

Montana has already applied for and received approval for FEMA grants for two fires — the now-contained Lodgepole Complex that burned 423 square miles (1,095 square kilometers) in eastern Montana and the still-active Lolo Peak fire in western Montana.

The grants allow the state to be reimbursed 75 percent of its costs responding to an individual fire.

With more than two dozen large fires currently burning across the state, Montana officials would like to apply for additional grants but those fires don’t meet certain criteria for the amount of infrastructure that is being threatened, said Bullock spokeswoman Ronja Abel.

Bullock is asking FEMA to approve grants that cover multiple fires and to help the state secure a major disaster declaration that would lead to assistance for individual residents, Abel said.

The fire management assistance grants are meant to go toward fires “that threaten such destruction as would constitute a major disaster,” according to a FEMA description of the grants.

FEMA spokeswoman Stacie Greff said the storms in Texas and the Atlantic won’t affect the availability of the fire grants.

“It won’t cut off the program,” she said.

Stay Connected with the Daily Roundup.

Sign up for our newsletter and get the best of the Beacon delivered every day to your inbox.