WISE RIVER – This winter’s extreme drought, the potential forcatastrophic wildfires this summer and a shrinking federal budgets is putting agrowing number of folks on edge around southwest Montana.
Funding is so tight Forest Service officials haven’t been able to beginhiring seasonal firefighters at the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest.
At the Bureau of Land Management, officials worry the money mightevaporate for an important project to reduce the potential for catastrophic firealong the wildland/urban interface near Wise River.
And where federal money has been allocated, Beaverhead County officialsaren’t finding a lot of private landowners yet willing to step up and takeadvantage of a program that could save their homes from wildfire.
On the Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest, officials are looking at thepossibility of having to cut more than 50 seasonal workers to make up a $1.5million difference in the forest’s fire preparedness budget.
Those teams are scattered around the forest and typically are the firstones to arrive at a fire.
After the fires of 2000, federal funding for firefighters on nationalforests was set at what the agency called “most efficient levels.” TheBeaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest has been funded at 95 percent. Under thecurrent budget scenario, funding dropped to 60 percent of those levels.
Instead of nine engines, the forest will have eight engines on dutythroughout the fire season. The more than 50 seasonal employees that staffedinitial attack teams scattered about the forest won’t be hired.
There may be some additional funding coming down the pike, but Jack deGolia, Beaverhead-Deerlodge National Forest spokesman, said he didn’t expectthat it would be a dramatic change.
The cuts are affecting all federal agencies.
For instance, the BLM is proposing a restoration project in the WiseRiver area that would reduce fuels in the wildland/urban interface and helpreduce the threat of danger to the Butte municipal watershed.
The agency is just beginning the initial steps of putting together theproject and anticipates that work could start as soon as fall 2006. But there’sno guarantee the project will get funded, said Terina Mullen, BLM’s firemitigation and education specialist in the Butte Field Office.
“Everything is an if right now,” Mullen said. “If itdoesn’t get funded, we’ll still have all the planning done and maybe be able toget it done sometime later. Our funding is getting cut right now.”
Beaverhead County does have some money to start work on fuel reductionprojects on private lands. Under the program, the county would pay up to $2,500for projects up to 5 acres and up to $4,500 for larger fuel reduction projectson private property.
Landowners would be required to match 25 percent of the total cost.
So far, Scott Marsh, the county’s fire warden, hasn’t been overwhelmedwith requests. Meetings held in communities throughout the county weren’t wellattended.
“Unfortunately, people are pretty apathetic until the fire comesknocking at their door,” he said. “By then, it’s often too late.”