Comparing how the federal government and Montana pay for wildfires

dollar signThe 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.

Sampling of photos from recent fires

hose mad river fire

Fire hose was transported back to the incident base on the Mad River Complex in northern California after being deployed on the fireline. Before it is used again it will be tested, cleaned, and rolled.

These photos are samples of those being uploaded by incident management teams to InciWeb over the last few weeks. If no date or photographer’s credit is listed, it means they were not provided on InciWeb.

tanker drop Buck Horn Fire

Air tanker drop on the Buck Horn Fire in Montana, August 13.

Grizzly Bear Complex, Oregon

Snow on the Grizzly Bear Complex, Oregon, September 5. Credit: WIIMT #4.

Omak Fire

Incident Command Post at the Omak Fire in Washington.

Continue reading

Precipitation last 7 days

Precipitation last 7 days. September 5, 2015.

Observed precipitation last 7 days. September 5, 2015. NOAA.

The above map shows precipitation during the seven days preceding September 5, 2015. Some areas in Montana, Idaho, Washington, and Oregon received over an inch.

The map below is the observed precipitation today, September 5, 2015. This rainfall over the last week, and in some cases snow, probably will not put out the large fires, but will certainly slow them down.

Observed precipitation on September 5, 2015

Observed precipitation on September 5, 2015. NOAA.

Wildfire Briefing, September 4, 2015

Snow slows fire in Idaho

Elevenmile Fire snow

NWS photo by Ryan Walbrun, the Incident Meteorologist at the Elevenmile Fire.

The National Weather Service in Pocatello, Idaho reports that Friday morning snow fell at the Elevenmile Fire between Bonanza and Challis.

Due to a forecast that included rain and snow, firefighters were removed from high elevation spike camps on the fire Thursday.

The lightning-caused fire discovered on August 24 has burned over 10,300 acres.

Cyclist who started fire by burning his toilet paper may be on the hook for large dollars

The bicyclist who accidentally started a fire near Boise on July 22 by burning his soiled toilet paper may have to pay a fine as well as a portion of the suppression costs. The Idaho Statesman reported that BLM spokesperson Carrie Bilbao said the costs are likely to be between $50,000 and $75,000 which includes the use of four air tankers and three helicopters. The fire was stopped before it approached homes after burning 73 acres.

Scooping air tankers drop 182,000 gallons on a fire in Montana

Below are excerpts from an article at KPAX about firefighting aircraft working out of Helena, Montana this summer:


“In an average year we have 15 to 20 aircraft that come through in a season,” says Helena National Forest public affairs officer Kathy Bushnell. “So far this year, we’ve had 20-plus different aircraft come through.”

Thanks to its location, aircraft staged here can reach many parts of central Montana quickly. The Aviation Center serves multiple aircraft.

“Helicopters, we have air tankers, single-engine air tankers, heavy air tankers that’ll come in depending on what is ordered for the fires,” Bushnell said.

This week, firefighters are also getting an assist from visitors from Canada, CL-415 water bombers.

“We requested some additional aircraft to come out to help us with the fires here in Montana, Idaho, and Washington,” said Bushnell.

The bomber scoops water from lakes into huge tanks – 1,600 gallons in 12 seconds.

The water bombers arrived in town Monday. On Tuesday, they were hard at work on the Bray Fire burning north of Holter Lake.

“They worked about six flight hours,” according to Bushnell. “They were able to do 112 loads which equates to about 182,000 gallons of water that was used on the fire.”

Health warning in California due to wildfire smoke

The Rough Fire east of Fresno, California has prompted the San Joaquin Valley Air Pollution Control District to issue a health warning to people headed to the mountains and foothills of Tulare and Fresno counties this weekend.

The district says children and the elderly are especially vulnerable.

Black Hills firefighters on a fire in the Bitterroot National Forest

south dakota fire crew

Black Hills National Forest firefighter and crewboss trainee, Josh Walk took this photo of his crew of firefighters from Box Elder Job Corps and Rapid City Fire Department, working the Buckhorn Saddle Fire on the Bitterroot National Forest [in Montana]. A typical crew rotation lasts 14 days, but can be expanded to 21 days. Hourly shift assignments vary, but firefighters typically work 10 to 16 hour days. Keep up the great work folks!

(From the Facebook page for the Black Hills National Forest, which is in southwest South Dakota.)

Rain slows fires in northwest Montana

Significant quantities of rain have slowed some of the fires in northwest Montana. Below is an excerpt from an article in the Daily Interlake:

Substantial rainfall — at least by parched Northwest Montana standards — has dampened area wildfire activity. The changing weather and slowing fire activity have allowed evacuation orders to be lifted in the Essex, Noxon and Libby areas.

On the 6,810-acre Northeast Kootenai Complex, which is almost entirely composed of the 6,700-acre Marston Fire east of Fortine, opportunistic firefighters were leaping at the chance to corral the blaze. Fire spokesman Tom Rhode said firefighters were drawing a line in the dirt while they could. “It wasn’t very active yesterday,” he said Monday. “The west side has line on it, that’s the 15 percent containment, about nine miles. Crews are now working around the south and north sides of the fire. It comes creeping down to our lines, but we stop it. It hasn’t moved.”

The Northeast Kootenai Complex received a tenth of an inch of precipitation. More rain — .67 inches — fell on the massive fires burning in the Spotted Bear Ranger District of the Flathead National Forest. Ema Braunberger, Flathead National Forest fire information officer, said the effect of the “deluge” was a welcome one.

“We got a lot of rain and it really slowed things down here,” she said. “We’re in hazard tree removal and are creating that shaded fuel break along the road. It’s kind of nice, like a little park area.”