The End of Something

Elected officials need to do more to make sure the state has enough funds each year to fight wildfires

By Rob Breeding

Years ago, during a particularly bad fire season in the Bitterroot, I remember we valley residents seemed to hold our collective breaths all summer, waiting for the inferno to end.

The end came during the fair. The Ravalli County Fair is always held Labor Day weekend, and that year my mother had traveled to Hamilton to visit. Mom and her husband were regulars at our house for that holiday as she loved seeing her young granddaughters and she found the fair a quaint change of pace from the city life she knew in Southern California.

That’s why I remember that fire season ended Labor Day weekend. I was walking out of the Hamilton Super 1 after shopping with mom and we bumped into the Bitterroot National Forest’s main fire guy in the parking lot. His name escapes me now, but I’ll never forget the smile on his face as we looked up at the fresh snow on St. Mary Peak. There was weather in the Bitterroot that weekend. It may have spoiled the fair, but that was a small price to pay.

“It isn’t over yet,” he said, but his grin gave away his false caution. The fire season was over for the year. We both knew it.

A few years later, after my family moved from the Bitterroot to Arizona, we planned an August vacation back to Montana. That was 2000, an infamous summer of fire in the Bitterroot, memorialized by a photograph taken at night showing a pair of elk seeking refuge in the East Fork of the Bitterroot River near Sula, while the hillside just across the river was engulfed in flames.

As our vacation date neared, friends in the valley suggested we reschedule. The Bitterroot was all flames and smoke, they told us. Better to not see an old home we’d so loved in such a dismal state.

We came anyway, but as we drove north on I-15 and cleared the pass north of Malad, Idaho, rain began to fall. By the time we reached Hamilton the following afternoon, the fires were gone and rain had scrubbed the sky clean of any trace of smoke. Other than the freshly blackened mountains west of Hamilton, it was hard to tell there’d been any fire at all.

Mid-August in 2000 and the fires were out.

Labor Day 2017 came and went last weekend. It’s not quite as hot as it’s been, but as I look at the forecast for the next week I see nothing but clear skies and unseasonably warm temperatures. I hope the forecast is wrong, but this summer has beaten much of the optimism out of me.

One million acres in Montana have burned. The state has spent more than $50 million fighting fires, draining the fund set aside for such efforts, and then some. More than $30 million was cut from the fire fund during the last legislative session, when the cold, icy winter lulled lawmakers into the false security that 2017 would be easy peasy. I’d like to hope this will be the last time our elected officials act in such a foolhardy fashion when it comes to preparing for natural disaster, but I usually expect disappointment in such matters. That allows me a modicum of added relief in the rare instances when they get things right.

Here’s a suggestion for our elected officials: Do a little calculating on what the state spends annually on fire, and triple it. Set that much aside every year for fighting fire, and leave it for when it’s needed.

Praying for Labor Day rain just isn’t gonna cut it anymore.