As fire danger rises across the state, the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation is ready to go into action.
State forester Sonya Germann said Friday that Montana’s fire season is already in full swing. DNRC and local first responders have dealt with more than 200 fires in recent weeks, though they have been able to contain them to a total of just 2,700 acres.
DNRC is expecting fire danger to increase substantially over the next week or two. Germann said forecasters predicted the fire season would start later than usual this year, but last longer.
Leaders say, in recent years, summer weather in Montana has been warmer and drier on average.
“We are looking at expanded fire seasons,” said Germann. “We’re actually calling it a ‘fire year.’”
Each year, DNRC adds about 140 seasonal staff to help respond to fires. Germann said those seasonal employees have been fully trained and assigned to their positions.
“Our units are staffed and ready, and our equipment – including our aviation equipment – is staffed and ready,” she said.
DNRC directly protects millions of acres of state, private and federal land, and assists local firefighters when needed. Most of the agency’s responders are in Western Montana, but they will respond to incidents across the state.
Currently, the state of Montana has about $42 million in its fire suppression account, after lawmakers transferred money into the fund during last year’s special legislative session. However, much of that money will be used to cover costs from last year’s record fire season. The net balance is only about $4 million.
Germann said DNRC would typically expect to spend $20 million to $30 million per year from the fire suppression fund. She said the state will find alternative sources for fire funding if they need it.
“Regardless of the balance in the fire suppression account, that’s not going to change the way that we respond to wildfires,” she said.
Much of DNRC’s annual spending on wildfires comes not from the suppression account, but from a separate fire prevention budget that includes money from the general fund and from an annual assessment on some landowners. Germann said, during the next state legislative session, the agency plans to ask lawmakers to make adjustments to that assessment.
Last year’s dramatic fires brought more attention and interest in the services DNRC provides throughout the year. Germann said about 4,700 local firefighters from around the state came to them for additional training – 1,200 more than the year before. Hundreds more property owners asked the agency for help with fire mitigation around their homes.
As fire conditions get more dangerous, DNRC is asking people to be especially cautious. Leaders say about 60 percent of fires in Montana are human-caused.
“We just really want to send a message out to people to be aware of their trailers, trailer chains, how they’re using their equipment on their property and other people’s property, and also any type of fires that they may be using for recreation or on their property,” said Germann.