HELENA – Montana’s $60 million wildfire reserve fund could be halved by budget cuts next month at the peak of what state officials say is emerging to be a very active and expensive summer for fighting fires.
Conditional budget cuts passed by state lawmakers earlier this year call for removing up to $30 million from the fire fund if state revenue drops far enough below forecasts.
Republican Sen. Pat Connell of Hamilton, the lawmaker who sponsored the 2013 bill creating the fire fund, told Lee Newspapers of Montana that he is concerned the state could come up short of money to fight fires.
“I could just about put money on it (running out),” he said. “Our option simply will be to go into a special session of the Legislature to pay the bills.”
The architect of the law that created the budget cuts, Republican Sen. Llew Jones of Conrad, said it appeared that the state would have an average fire season when the bill passed. But, he said, the fund would still have more than $30 million in it, and there would be other money available if needed in the governor’s emergency fund and from the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
So far this decade, the state has spent various amounts each year on fighting fires, ranging from $2.5 million in 2011 to $57 million in 2013.
This spring, fire forecasts suggested Montana would have a moderate fire season, said DNRC director John Tubbs. But since then, the state has been gripped by a heat wave with little rain, which has dried out the timber and grass that flourished during the spring.
State officials now say this fire season is expected to be very active. The state has spent between $5 million and $10 million so far this summer, but dry thunderstorms packing lightning have ignited dozens of new fires this week alone.
The state’s strategy has been to attack new fires before they grow larger than 10 acres, and that approach has been very effective so far, Tubbs said.
“Still, it’s a long way to September,” he said of the typical end of the fire season.
The revenue figures for the financial year that ended June 30 are expected to be released next week. Varying levels of reductions to state spending will be triggered next month depending on how far short the actual revenue is compared to the forecast that lawmakers used to pass the two-year state budget.
The state will transfer $12 million from the fire fund if revenue is below the forecast $2.2 billion. Additional transfers of $12 million and $6 million will be made if revenue is $12 million and $24 million shy of the forecast, respectively.
That money would go to shore up the state budget and a $200 million rainy day fund.
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