It’s mid-September and Montana is open for business. More than a thousand fires burned a million acres across our big state over the long, hot and dry season. The weather conditions are extreme.
Private homes were lost. The historic Sperry Chalet located seven miles from Lake McDonald in Glacier National Park is gone, a hundred years after is was built.
Last week fire crews prepared to protect Lake McDonald Lodge. Evacuation orders were temporarily in place from the south end of Lake McDonald to Logan Pass. The lodge had closed due to unhealthy smoke levels. Smoke our firefighters breathe routinely.
It’s been a historic fire season in Montana, the worst disaster for many. Yet wildfires aren’t considered disasters.
Sen. Jon Tester advocates that Congress classify wildfires as natural disasters. The change allows Montana to tap into federal emergency funds directly rather than apply for grants like the $3.3 million Tester recently secured.
Tester said that nearly half of the Forest Service’s budget goes to fighting fires, “and, by the way, they predict in two years it’ll be two-thirds.” That leaves little money to manage federal lands for other uses than fire.
Congress needs a better model for funding wildfire disasters. There’s more fire today and scant resources are scattered across the nation.
Montana lawmakers started a fire disaster account a decade ago for state lands. So far, Montana has spent nearly $45 million from that wildfire fund. Earlier, lawmakers shuffled nearly half of the wildfire fund to backfill other parts of the state budget.
State legislators could be called back to an extended session to fix the budget and return funds back into the state forest fire account.
Montana House Republicans had overinflated the state revenue projection by $100 million to avoid making immediate budget cuts or finding new revenues to balance the budget, as required by the state Constitution.
Gov. Steve Bullock said, “the state will not stop paying for fire suppression efforts across the state.” The governor said the state would initially transfer $40 million from other services to pay firefighters.
Meanwhile, U.S. House Republicans plan cutting nearly $1 billion from the federal disaster account to help build the president’s southern border wall.
Montana is the center of a national drought. It’s bloody hot and dry outside. There’s little rain or snow in sight.
Nearly every Montanan now lives in a drought-classified area. The U.S. Department of Agriculture says that nearly two-thirds of our pasture and rangeland was rated poor to very poor.
Nearly $200 million was spent battling 80 huge fires that’s ravaged hundreds of thousands of Montana acres. Ten fires are burning in one national forest alone with more than 2,500 firefighters putting their lives at risk.
Bullock declared a state of emergency and activated 500 National Guard troops to help as 65 fires ignited one morning. These troops joined 4,500 firefighters and 125 aircraft.
Some politicians have gone feral; they won’t talk about the changing climate nor adequately fund the management of wildfires on federal lands.
The Republicans who control the Montana Legislature and the Republicans who control Congress need to govern. Montana deserves more resources to better fight wildfires.
Wildfires put lives at risk. They jeopardize our businesses, homes, and way of life.
Soon, some will say that future reconstruction is through privatizing our national resources. Watch for these vultures of chaos.
Through the smoky haze of regional fires, much of the Flathead remains open. Whitefish and Kalispell have miles of public trails outside town for bikers, walkers, and recreationists.
Congress needs to call wildfires what they are, disasters. There’s a bitter taste in our mouths and lungs from the changing climate. Extreme weather demands that Congress send more resources to Western states.
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