Pat Connell

The main point of the Missoulian guest column, “Reduce wildfire risk or we’ll pay more for fire disasters” on May 28, was that the congressional-proposed Wildfire Disaster Funding Act should be passed. The authors were spot-on. We in the West recognize wildfires of the type we’ve dealt with the last quarter century as disasters, and funding their control and suppression efforts by the Federal Emergency Management Agency makes irrefutable common sense.

Then, unfortunately, the column got off the rails by broad-brushing certain issues while ignoring specific efforts to address the very concern that they raised. The scope and scale of fuel reduction mitigation efforts differs dramatically between the federal and state lands, and their respective wildfire suppression responsibilities. This is particularly so in the Intermountain West.

In Montana, it is inaccurate and horribly misleading to suggest that wildfire risk management has taken a back seat in the attitude of the state legislature, or the Department of Natural Resources's “budgetary constraints stand in the way of such fuel management.” Historically perhaps, this was Montana’s overall perspective on the issue. However, since the massive fires of 2007 which have been the financial responsibility for the state to suppress, Montana has dramatically changed its approach for the better.

In the past, state suppression of wildfires were a collateral responsibility of DNRC, and past legislators did not want to create what was deemed an appropriated “slush fund” for wildfire control whose annual necessity was problematic; so wildfire costs were either floated until the following session covered the costs via a “supplemental” appropriation or, if need be, have a very quick, one-issue special session.

No longer. As the state wildfire risks increased in the past, the bankers who buy Montana-generated revenue bonds, whether local, school or state, looked at the wildfire liability as unfunded, and a risk to the good faith and credit of our state. House Bill 354, which I sponsored in 2013, created a statutory funding mechanism through reverting unspent appropriated monies within state government to fill a war chest up to $100 million for wildfires.

Its effectiveness was immediate, as the war chest covered the $11 million suppression costs of the Lolo Fire later that same year. Further, the bond bankers saw this as “balancing our state books” and, as a result, improved Montana’s bond rating. Financing a statutory reserve account for wildfire suppression through reversion monies is unique in state government, and Montana has proven its effectiveness.

The rest of the story is fuel reduction before the fires. First, HB354 allows up to $5 million per biennium for that specific purpose. It is putting “boots on the ground” addressing fuels buildup in the Wildland Urban Interface on lands throughout the state. Second, through a series of bills that Sen. Brad Hamlett, D-Cascade, and I co-sponsored these past two sessions, Montana has become a very assertive advocate supporting fuel reduction measures on federal ground for the protection of Montana’s watersheds. Montana DNRC foresters are now statutorily authorized to engage on fuel reduction work on critical watersheds to the state on federal lands, and the attorney general has statutory authority to pro-actively intervene to support federal fuel management projects throughout Montana. Passage of the federal Farm Bill last year further opened an opportunity for Montana that the Bullock administration utilized to identify from our state perspective 5 million federal acres at high fire risk needing fuel reduction efforts.

Combined with an extremely aggressive and effective DNRC initial attack fire plan supported by the state administration, Montana is leading the way to contain wildfires on state and private lands that is now the model that other states are trying to copy.

Now, as the authors in the column pointed out, when large fires do hit federal lands in Montana, let FEMA budgets deal with the suppression costs so that the Forest Service can stay on focus mitigating the fuel buildup.

State Sen. Pat Connell, R-Hamilton, is a certified forester who has served two terms on the House Natural Resource and Water Policy committees and currently serves on the Senate Natural Resource and Energy committees.

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