As more and more wildfires burn during an increasingly hot and dry summer, Montana will likely have to take $30 million out of a fund that pays for fighting fires to prop up an anemic state budget instead.
Now, some state leaders worry there won’t be enough left in the fire fund to pay for suppression efforts through the end of the summer.
“I could just about put money on it (running out),” said Sen. Pat Connell, the Hamilton Republican and professional forester who carried the 2013 bill to create the fire fund. “Our option simply will be to go into a special session of the Legislature to pay the bills.”
Faced with a tight fiscal situation because of declining natural resource production, the Legislature this spring decided to pull money out of the state fire fund, if necessary, to maintain an informal $200 million rainy-day fund and to reduce the depth of cuts to other state operations and services. Gov. Steve Bullock argued the cushion was needed to maintain the state’s cash flow throughout the year, but many GOP legislators insisted the figure was too high.
Lawmakers created four levels of so-called triggers that would pull from the fire fund and make cuts elsewhere across state government if revenues came in lower than projected. And that’s what has happened. Nearly all state agencies will be affected by the cuts in some way, and many are preparing for the most-severe actions possible. Details of the cuts are expected to be announced next week.
Many legislators suspected some cuts might be necessary, but the gap between projections and actual tax collections is wider than anticipated.
The Department of Natural Resources has spent somewhere between $5 million and $10 million fighting fires this summer, said director John Tubbs.
By the end of the week the department hopes to get an idea of how much money was left in in the suppression fund after fighting last year's fires. In ballpark figures, Tubbs said he expects about $60 million to $63 million. If the state makes the steepest level of cuts, it would leave just half of that amount for fire suppression. No money will be deposited in the fund this year.
While there’s no such thing as a typical fire year, this summer has the makings for an expensive one.
“This spring all the national fire forecasts suggested a moderate fire season. Those were wrong,” Tubbs said. Northeastern Montana is in a severe drought and the western side of the state has dried rapidly following a dry summer in 2016. There’s also a lot of fuel to burn because of spring moisture.
“We are seeing fire activity now, and I think anybody that’s been around the state would really be hoping this would be mid-August,” Tubbs said. “There’s nothing to suggest we’re not going to have a very active fire season.”
Sen. Llew Jones, R-Conrad, was one of the main architects of the bill implementing the triggers. He said legislators last spring were accounting for an average fire year when they decided to tap the fire fund, but there are still other ways to pay if Montana burns more than expected.
“Even if all the triggers are hit, the fund would still have more than $30 million,” he said Thursday. “That was taken into consideration. And then there’s the governor’s emergency fund, and the DNRC (Department of Natural Resources) has some additional money.”
Jones said in his 13 years at the Legislature, he’s only seen the fund exceed what would be left in the account this year once, but acknowledged “anything could happen.”
In 2013, the most costly year in recent memory, the state spent $57 million on fire suppression. In a more normal year the state spends about $20 million, but that number can be much lower — in 2011 it was just $2.5 million.
“There’s obviously potential to be a challenge if this is going to be a severe fire year and next year will be a severe fire year as well, but I hope next year will be a better budget year.”
The fund is filled from leftover money from state agencies.
Connell lamented that the fire fund was chosen as a key way to patch the budget.
“The fire fund was not designed to be a piggy bank to rob, but to pay for legitimate costs of fire suppression,” he said, noting he supports the state’s aggressive techniques using both ground and air attacks early on. While helicopters are expensive to fly, he argues their use saves money in the long run when compared to flight costs to suppress fires that grow even larger.
Connell pushed back on assumptions made by some legislators in April that this year’s fire season would be mild because of heavy snow pack and consistent spring rains. Paraphrasing a college lesson from Montana historian K. Ross Toole, he said, “It don’t matter how much (moisture) you get, just when you get it.”
“The snow pack and spring rains are great for fisheries, surface water and reservoirs, but it doesn’t do a damn thing to reduce fire risk,” he said. “Humidity, temperature, fuel moisture and availability of fuel are all that matter.”
He said the snowy winter and wet spring only caused more vegetation to grow than usual, and now high temperatures have dried out much of it. As a result, the state is blanketed in an abundance of fuel waiting for a spark.
By the next two-year budget cycle in 2019, triggered cuts might be unnecessary. This year the Legislature established a new Budget Stabilization Fund, where the state will sock away extra money in good times and from which it can withdraw cash in bad times. But the state has not yet had enough time to build up its emergency savings account, of sorts.
For this year, only time will tell how the summer unfolds.
“Anything could happen,” Jones said. “There should be enough to fight the fires, but if there's not, there’s always a special session.”
The DNRC is working to knock down fires before they grow past 10 acres, something Tubbs said could save the state millions. Aircraft capable of dropping water on fires are spread around the state and firefighters have stopped hundreds of fires most people haven’t heard of because they weren’t named.
“Our initial attacks are being very effective,” Tubbs said. “Still, it’s a long way to September.”
Tubbs said he expects some additional revenue, possibly up to $10 million to be deposited into the account at the end of this fiscal year, which is next July. But two bad fire years back to back could mean problems.
“The biggest risk is if it gets really big this year, it would be a problem going into next fire season if we had two consecutive high-cost fire years. We’d really be in trouble.”