Smoky skies lead to stunning sunsets

A smoky sunset on the Lolo Peak fire. 

Mike Daniels, courtesy of the Bitterroot National Forest

Thousands of acres of Montana’s forests and grasslands are on fire, the valleys around Missoula are choked with smoke, and the state’s firefighting funds are rapidly dwindling.

Forecasters didn’t expect this summer’s fires to be quite this bad, but experts have long warned that we should prepare for larger and more intense wildfires with each passing year. Meanwhile, Montana and the other Western states most directly affected by catastrophic fires have been sounding the alarm about the urgent need to change the nation’s approach to wildfire prevention, suppression and funding.

It appears nobody is listening.

What more could it possibly take to convince Congress that immediate action is needed? The costs in terms of lost property and taxpayer dollars is many millions of dollars, and counting. The lasting damage done to personal livelihoods and public health is incalculable. And two firefighters have been killed battling fires in Montana this season alone – a tragedy that has no measure.

Yet it took pointed pressure from all three of Montana’s congressional delegates to convince the Federal Emergency Management Agency to lend its aid to the Lodgepole Complex fires in eastern Montana, an action the agency initially resisted even after Gov. Steve Bullock signed an executive order declaring a fire emergency.

Despite persistent calls for reform, the nation still lacks a reliable source of wildfire-fighting funds, instead relying on the U.S. Forest Service to spend ever-larger portions of its budget fighting fires – instead of preventing them. The results of this policy are evident all across the scorched forests and fields of Montana. Clearly, something more needs to be done.

Last month, Governor Bullock announced plans to raise Montana’s “voice” on the national stage. He hired a new chief of staff with federal experience: Tom Lopach, a former executive director of the Democratic Senatorial Campaign Committee and U.S. Sen. Jon Tester’s former chief of staff. Lopach starts in his new position Monday.

And Bullock filed registration papers with the Federal Election Commission to form a new political action committee, named Big Sky Values, to fundraise for travel and appearances outside the state. He told reporters that he sought to add his perspective as a Democratic governor in a Republican-leaning state to the national conversation, and that the PAC would help him “share Montana’s story.”

Bullock already holds a prominent national seat as vice chair of the National Governors Association, a position he was named to this summer. This means he will act as the organization’s chairman after next summer.

In the meantime, Bullock is the 2017 chair of the Western Governors Association, a similarly bipartisan organization that seeks to find shared solutions to the challenges seen in Western states.

Wildfire is a challenge these states hold in common if ever there was one. If Bullock is sincere about elevating Montana’s voice, and not just his own political prospects, he ought to use these influential positions to call for more effective action on the wildfires that threaten to burn up more of our public lands – and budgets – every year.

The $63 million Montana originally set aside for firefighting this biennium has been reduced by $30 million after automatic triggers tied to lower-than-expected revenue took effect. The governor and legislators agreed to patch up the budget with these funds well before the start of the wildfire season, not knowing that Montana would soon be grappling with the worst fires in the nation.

The state is currently fighting 20 large fires, and fire suppression efforts are costing about $1.5 million per day. The state spent $21 million fighting fires in July, leaving just $12 million left.

After the firefighting fund is emptied out, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation will start spending from the general fund. The department is authorized to use up to $22 million, and the fire emergency declaration authorized an additional $16 million.

FEMA will help cover 75 percent of the costs of fighting the state’s largest fires in the Lodgepole complex in eastern Montana, and the state is sharing costs with the U.S. Forest Service. The Forest Service, meanwhile, is now spending the majority of its budget on fire suppression. In 1995, the agency spent 16 percent of its annual appropriated budget on firefighting. In 2015, it spent more than 50 percent.

This leaves less money for the kinds of forest management that prevent wildfires in the first place.

Apart from the Forest Service, other federal agencies are being asked to provide assistance for those affected by severe drought, lost cattle and crops, farming equipment and fencing.

No state should have to beg the federal government for assistance to protect its people from the ever-growing threat of wildfires, or to help them recover from the damage caused by natural disasters. In fact, Western states with large amounts of federal land should have the assurance that the federal government will do its part to prevent such disasters in the future.

But such assurance requires a drastic shift in the way wildfire prevention and suppression is funded. Governor Bullock should be a vocal advocate for such change, and a force that unites across party lines to arrive at real solution.

We look to him for leadership on this issue. Wildfires are a matter of the utmost environmental and financial importance, at the nexus of federal, state and local public lands management. Finding a better way to manage them is critical to Montana’s future – and to the nation’s as well.

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