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A wildland firefighter takes a break amid thick smoke near the site of a back burn operation on the south end of the Lolo Peak fire on Aug. 28. 

TOMMY MARTINO, Missoulian

Eastern Montana landowners would bear their share of the state’s firefighting preparation costs under a new tax that would also help offset some of the 2017 budget shortfall.

House Bill 4 would raise about $16.6 million in new property taxes from landowners whose property was protected by state firefighters. Many parts of western Montana already pay these firefighting preparedness fees, contributing about $3.6 million to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

But an unexpectedly severe fire season put another $13 million dent in the state general fund. DNRC Director John Tubbs said the new assessment would transfer those costs to property owners who receive the protection but aren’t paying for it.

“It is a sea change in how we do fire assessments in the state,” Tubbs told the House Appropriations Committee on Monday. “The 2017 fire season reflects the statewide nature of the problem. We had fires in all 56 counties of Montana.”

But only 35 counties have elected locally to have fire districts that can raise money to train and staff DNRC firefighters outside areas protected by municipal fire departments. HB 4 would make that assessment statewide, charging any private property owner not covered by a fire district a sliding fee per parcel.

“The fire assessment fees in the western side of the state pay for one-third of the fire preparedness costs of DNRC,” Sen. Chas Vincent, R-Libby, said in support of the bill. “But those resources are used statewide. That works OK when you have an average fire season. When you have season like this year, with activity on both sides of the state, it leaves DNRC in a heck of a position.”

Western county fire districts already cap their assessments at $45 a parcel. The new base charge would be $21 per parcel over 15 acres. Properties with forest land would pay an additional $21, and those with residential or commercial buildings would also pay another $21. So a property with both forest and buildings would pay three times the base rate.

Tubbs said that reflects the different costs of defending grassland, timberland and structures. It also amounts to a tax break for large western timber owners who’ve been supporting DNRC’s statewide firefighting effort.

“With the Lolo Peak fire, all the fire protection was based 500 feet from where the houses were,” Tubbs said. “We let the timber burn, but boy we protected every one of those structures except for two (homes that burned down). We’re spending a lot of money protecting those dwellings. Large timber-forested owners are getting a tax break with this. But if you’re an eastern Montana landowner and you’ve never paid an assessment, you’re getting a very expensive bill.”

Montana Wood Products Association Director Julia Altemus said Montana timber companies have lost millions of dollars worth of trees to forest fires. The organization supported the bill, she said, with reservations.

“Fire preparedness has been on backs of western timberland owners,” Altemus told the committee. “But we’re not sure this is time or place to make that huge a change. There needs to be a bigger and broader breadth of conversation than what’s here this morning.”

Rep. Ken Holmlund, R-Miles City, introduced House Bill 4 at Gov. Steve Bullock’s request. It passed out of committee on Monday and survived a first reading Tuesday on the House floor. Holmlund said he would probably add an amendment giving the 2019 full legislative session another look at the policy before it becomes permanent.

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