Montana legislators unwilling to pay predicted ‘price of flame’

Montana legislators unwilling to pay predicted ‘price of flame’

4 January 2009

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USA — After studying the problem of escalating wildfire suppression costs in Montana for nearly a year, an interim committee of legislators is recommending that the next legislature do more than fund government agencies to fight fires.

To solve the “long-term problem of fire costs,” the Montana legislature must address “conflicts” in fire policy and community development; assign mitigation responsibility to property owners; and retain the viability of the woods product industry.

In its recently released final report “The Price of Flame,” the 12-member Interim Fire Suppression Committee bluntly states, “If the legislature only provides funding and does not deal with the other issues, time, money, and effort will have been wasted on this project.”

Created in 2007, by lawmakers called into emergency session to deal with a $42 million fire season, the Committee’s primary goal is to find ways to reduce the costs and impacts of Montana wildfire [link to original article].

Their final report is full of observations and predictions, including the possibility that fire suppression costs in Montana may top $200 million annually and that it’s only a matter of time before Montana faces a really big, deadly, and economically crippling wildfire.

One of its conclusions is that “the state fire suppression agency” will have to “grow” by nearly 58 full-time employees and $4.7 million “in the coming years” to handle the state’s wildfire hazards.

The report offers a wealth of recommendations as well. Some are for immediate implementation, such as state and local governments “prioritizing fuels reduction in the wildland/urban interface” and implementing “as many projects as possible with current levels of funding.”

Others—nearly 20 pages worth—are “specific recommendations” that need legislative or some other action. Many of these recommendations are now moving through the legislative process as draft bills..

Additionally, the Committee is recommending six “for action” items for the General Legislature. Two pertain to agency funding. Another two concern “conflicts,” first in the development of the wildland/urban interface (WUI)—that area where human habitation meets wildland vegetation —and then between state and federal fire-response policies.

The report recommends that state and federal agencies meet before and after every fire season “to discuss fire suppression plans and policies and to review decisions…regarding policy, land management, cost sharing, and compensation to private entities and local fire and emergency response agencies.”

It also recommends discussion of “long-term wildfire policies” and identifying “differences in policies so that the state is prepared to deal with the differences during the wildfire season.”

Sen. John Cobb (R-Augusta) explains that state and federal firefighters are already “talking about firefighting but not about policy.”

The state is a “full suppression agency,” he says. The federal government believes in “appropriate management response,” which allows some wildfires to burn.

That’s their prerogative, he figures, until the fire escapes federal boundaries and bursts onto state or private lands. He uses the Meriweather Fire that ignited in a wilderness area north of Helena as an example.

“If they had just put it out, it would have saved $20 million,” he says.

The Committee also urges the General Legislature to address the issue of property-owner responsibility to prevent wildfires from occurring, as well as the viability of the logging and fuel reduction industry.

They state in the final report, “If fire and land management agencies, various governmental units, and homeowners and landowners are not making changes, then the legislature will make much less headway in mitigating…predictions.”

Lastly, the Fire Suppression Committee asks the legislature “to decide if it wants a committee to follow up on all the recommendations made here.”

The report continues, “Many do not need bills or laws implemented but there should be some entity to determine whether or not the recommendations are being followed up by other agencies and people.”

“I’m hoping that they will continue to do it in some form, as an interim committee or make it a standing committee,” says Senator Carole Williams (D-Missoula). “We could legislative services to staff on an ongoing basis.”

If not, the report recommends, the next legislature should set “a termination date” for the project.

For more information about the Interim Fire Suppression Committee, visit

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