State budget draining $30M from fire fund – but firefighting mon - KTVQ.com | Q2 | Continuous News Coverage | Billings, MT

State budget draining $30M from fire fund – but firefighting money still available

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MT DNRC Director John Tubbs MT DNRC Director John Tubbs

A state budget-reduction bill is likely to drain $30 million from Montana’s firefighting fund this year, but enough money remains to cover 2017 firefighting costs, the state’s top lands official said Monday.

Still, the fund could be empty or close to empty next year, possibly forcing the state to find other money sources to fight fires in 2018, said John Tubbs, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

“If the fire fund goes to zero, we start to spend with appropriation authority that we have internally in the agency, in the Forestry Division, in Water Resources Division,” he told MTN News. “We did that in 2012 (when) there was no fire fund.”

The 2013 Legislature created the firefighting fund, in the wake of a $50 million bill from fires in 2012 that state lawmakers had to fund retrospectively.

The fund is meant to avoid that scenario by setting aside money in advance to fight fires, and is expected to have about $60 million at the start of the fiscal year this month.

But a budget bill passed by the 2017 Legislature said if state revenue didn’t meet certain targets by June 30, as much as $30 million of the fund will be transferred into the state treasury to cover general budget costs for all state agencies.

State officials have said it’s likely that amount will be transferred out of the firefighting fund later this summer, leaving a $30 million balance.

The average annual firefighting cost for the state is about $20 million, but Tubbs said Monday he won’t be surprised if this year’s costs are above-average.

“We started out this season thinking it would be pretty moderate,” he said. “It does not look like it’s going to be a moderate season, given weather conditions and the amount of fire we have here on the landscape.”

Tubbs spoke to MTN News as a warm wind blew across the Helena airport tarmac, where two water-bombers from Saskatchewan had just arrived to assist in Montana’s efforts to fight a raft of fires sparked in the past week of hot and sometimes windy weather.

The fund will get some additional money next year, as part of its usual revenue, but it’s too early to know whether it will be enough cover 2018 costs.

Tubbs said the agency is attempting to keep firefighting costs down by focusing on a “strong, initial attack” to snuff smaller fires before they get too big.

“We believe that if we can put out the fire quickly, we’re going to save the state millions of dollars,” he said. “It’s when the big fire breaks out that we tend to spend a lot of money.”

About Mike Dennison

MTN Chief Political Reporter Mike Dennison joined MTN News in August 2015 after a 23-year career as a newspaper reporter covering Montana politics and state government. While some may believe that politics are boring, Mike firmly believes that's not the case if you tell the story with pizzazz and let people know why the story is important.
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