- Associated Press - Wednesday, August 16, 2017

HELENA, Mont. (AP) - Montana’s firefighting fund could run out by the end of the week, the state’s budget director acknowledged Wednesday, forcing officials to draw money from emergency reserves to keep crews and equipment on the front lines of the worst collection of wildfires in the U.S.

More than $168.5 million of mostly federal money as of Wednesday was spent battling about 1,400 fires, big and small, that have charred nearly 780 square miles (2,020 square kilometers) statewide, according to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

The largest of the fires currently burning in the Lolo National Forest is less than half contained - with full containment not expected until October.

The state has spent $29.5 million in resources so far during the current fire season. With more than a half million dollars being spent daily on battling wildfires, that means it will be just a matter of days when the $2.5 million left in the fire fund is fully depleted, according to an analysis by The Associated Press.

The cost of battling fires has varied wildly day to day, from $300,000 to as much as $1.8 million daily, according to state Budget Director Dan Villa. Over the past week, it’s been about $600,000 a day.

The state began the fiscal year on July 1 with $62 million in its fire fund, but $30 million was immediately siphoned away because of legislation signed into law earlier this year that draws money from the fund to cover revenue shortfalls in the state budget.

As of Wednesday, the interagency coordination center said there were nearly 3,900 people from federal, state and local agencies battling a dozen major fires in Montana, with 222 fire engines and 32 helicopters deployed.

Meanwhile, fire officials said there was no immediate end in sight for the wildfires. The National Weather Service issued a warning for critical fire conditions across central Montana, including strong gusts and the threat of new fires.

Villa stressed that other money is available to battle the blazes when the firefighting fund is depleted.

“Our fear right now is that people are going to see the fire fund run out and have a concern that we’re not going to protect their home, and we’re not going to help with an evacuation. That’s not the case,” Villa said.

Gov. Steve Bullock’s fire emergency declaration last month made available $16 million in additional funding. Another $4 million in emergency funds went unspent last fiscal year and could also be available, Villa said.

The state’s Forestry Division was allocated $13 million, but it’s unclear how much of that money is directly available for fire suppression.

“At some point, if we run through all of that, there will have to be different decisions made,” said Sen. Llew Jones, a Republican from Conrad who chaired the Senate’s Finance Committee during this year’s legislative session.

While lawmakers expressed concern about how quickly the fire fund has evaporated, Jones said it was premature to discuss a special session to replenish the fund.

A decade ago, then-Gov. Brian Schweitzer called the Legislature into a special session to allocate an additional $55 million after the state spent the entire amount initially set aside for emergencies, including severe fires.

The state is expected to recoup 75 percent of its expenses from the federal government for assisting the battle against the Lolo National Forest wildfires, which burned 422 square miles (1,093 square kilometers) before they were contained and cost about $9.8 million to put out.

The severity of this year’s fire season puts increased pressure on state agencies to further contain expenses even as lower-than-expected state revenues have forced them to pare back spending.

“The issue is not about whether we’re going to stop putting out fires because we’re out of money in the fire fund,” said Sen. Pat Connell, a Republican from Hamilton.

“The discussion may be about what kind of money in our budget we will have to raid to recognize that putting out fires takes a priority over everything else,” he said.


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