The state of Montana and the federal government could not be more different in the way they pay for wildfires.
Montana sets the funds aside in advance while the federal government robs Peter to pay Paul most years, sacrificing fuel management programs to pay for the fires that get bigger in part because those programs were gutted.
Below is an excerpt from an October 19 article in the Billings Gazette about Montana’s program.
After decades of seeing the state pay its firefighting bills after the smoke cleared, state Sen. Pat Connell, a Republican from Hamilton, is pretty happy.
In the 2015 fire season, the state spent $10.5 million. But the Legislature’s fiscal division reported this week that the state’s wildfire suppression fund is at $86.5 million, with just a few bills left to pay.
This year’s balance started at $38.7 million, rolled over from last year, but was boosted by the $13.4 million left over in the governor’s emergency fund. Plus, $21.5 million of leftover appropriations and a one-time infusion of $15 million of excess corporate license taxes.
Connell, who struggled to get those funds together, is happy because there’s no need for a supplemental appropriation in 2017, or a special legislative session, nor did the Department of Natural Resources, which handles state firefighting on 5.2 million acres, have to shut down the water division to pay for firefighting…
On October 18 the Los Angeles Times expounded on the chaos within the federal government about funding wildfires:
When it comes to wildfires, some federal officials are tired of playing catch-up and leaving private property at heightened risk of a blaze.
“We’re really in a negative spiral right now,” Secretary of the Interior Sally Jewell said before she boarded a helicopter last week to tour of parts of San Diego County burned by the massive Cedar fire in 2003.
The problem isn’t the result of equipment, training or firefighting strategies, Jewell said. Instead, the problem is rooted in how the government pays to both prevent and fight wildfires, she said.
Jewell said that a change to the complex federal budget could cut the risk of homes going up in flames when a backcountry fire spreads.
When there are major wildfires, the department has to shift some of the money it planned to spend building firebreaks, teaching homeowners how to safeguard their property and other preventive measures to fighting fires.
This accounting maneuver helps the feds and their local partners in emergency situations. But it saps the prevention and rehabilitation budget to prepare for the next big wildfire, she said, adding there’s a greater risk of more and bigger blazes in the future.
“We do not have the capacity in the federal budget to treat those as the emergencies that they really are, as the disasters they really are,” she said as the region heads into the height of the wildfire season.
“When you have a tornado, and you have a flood, and you have a hurricane, or an earthquake, those are natural disasters, and we go to the disaster fund to take care of that so year in year out, landscapes can be protected from those events. We do not have that capacity with fire. It means we are not doing the work to reduce the risk of fighting fires long term…”
Rep. Scott Peters (San Diego), who joined Jewell on the tour, is trying to change the way fires are funded. He and others hope to get legislation passed that would set aside funds in advance based on the 10-year average spent on fire suppression. He expects that it would receive bipartisan support from about 300 members.
However, at the rate the size and costs of fires are increasing, the 10-year average could be an obsolete metric.
Similar legislation has been talked about in Washington for years but Congress has not been motivated to address the issue.
Maybe they should get some advice from Montana.
Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Steve.