USA – HELENA A state budget-reduction bill is likely to drain $30 million from Montanas firefighting fund this year, but enough money remains to cover 2017 firefighting costs, the states 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. Story continues below
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 didnt 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 its 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 wont be surprised if this years costs are above-average.
We started out this season thinking it would be pretty moderate, he said. It does not look like its 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 Montanas 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 its 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, were going to save the state millions of dollars, he said. Its when the big fire breaks out that we tend to spend a lot of money.