Montana is about to enter another potentially severe fire season with a paltry $4 million in a firefighting reserve fund after paying the bills from last year's record-setting summer, officials said Thursday.
Gov. Steve Bullock listened as fire officials from local, state, federal and tribal governments described their readiness for a season forecast to have warm, dry weather well into the fall. There are no major fires burning now, due in part to mountain snowpack that's still melting after one of the snowiest winters on record, but that's expected to change.
By mid-July, the threat for significant wild land fires will be above normal in northern and western Montana, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. By August and September, that above-normal threat will extend to south central Montana.
Mike DeGrosky, chief of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation's Fire and Aviation Bureau, said he is already watching for the start of the season in northeastern and northwestern Montana, the two driest parts of the state.
"Plan on a bad fire season — it's just going to start later and end later," DeGrosky said. Even if it's a normal fire season, he added, that still means hundreds of fires at a cost of millions of dollars to taxpayers.
Montana is still recovering from last year's fire season, when 2,134 square miles (5,527 square kilometers) burned, the most ever recorded. That has cost the state $68.7 million so far, DNRC spokesman John Grassy said.
That doesn't count the U.S. government's costs to respond to fires on federal lands.
Some $40 million was transferred into the state fire suppression fund on June 1, but about $36 million has already been transferred out to pay for last year's fire season.
There may be additional costs incurred from last year, but the $4 million left is good through the end of the month, Grassy said.
The state can use another $4 million in emergency funds, and any additional costs from this fire season will have to be paid for by the state Legislature when it convenes next year, Bullock said. There will be no skimping on firefighting operations due to financial concerns, he added.
"I certainly hope we don't have a fire season like we did last year, but if we do, we will rise to the challenge and we will figure it out," the governor said.
The Legislature had to cut state spending during a special session last year to close a budget shortfall due to the cost of fighting fires and because revenue came in lower than expected.
Montana is so far faring better than other Western states that had a dry, warm winter. In Colorado and Utah, for example, early season fires have forced thousands of people to flee their homes.
Ninety percent of Montana is experiencing normal moisture, according to the U.S. Drought Monitor, but the land is already drying out fast with temperatures in May running 5 degrees above average.
There is already less snow in the mountains now than there was at this time last year, said Michael Richmond, a meteorologist for the Northern Rockies Coordination Center.
The runoff from the snowpack and the spring rains are allowing grasses to flourish now, but they will dry out and become fuel for fires come July, he said.