Wildfires continue to plague Montana with several new lightning-caused fires in the Plains and Thompson Falls area on August 31. In Seeley, schools were closed and evacuation orders were made throughout the area as the Rice Ridge Fire has torn through 37,300 acres.
Meanwhile closer to Missoula the Lolo Peak Fire has grown to over 39,400 acres and continues to burn in Lolo and Florence areas. Also, the Sapphire Complex Fire burning in the Rock Creek area east of Missoula is over 38,600 acres and the Liberty Fire burning east of Arlee is at 12,800 acres.
Fire fighters are also scrambling to keep up with dozens of new fire starts which were sparked by lightning late last week. At press time, 1,500 fires had burned over 937 square miles in Montana this year with little relief in sight as hot, dry weather conditions continue into the fall.
Along with the growing number of fires, costs to fight them is growing as well.
The Sunrise Fire in Mineral County is at $28.7 million to join $45 million Montana has spent on wildfires so far this season. This is added to over $200 million spent by the federal government with the state’s firefighting reserve fund and an emergency fund drained.
“The first week of June, I had my annual fire briefing and it said there was drought in eastern Montana and western Montana was looking good and then there was a period of no precipitation,” said Montana Gov. Steve Bullock during a recent visit to Alberton. “This is turning out to probably be the most significant fire season we’ve ever had.”
There are more than direct firefighting costs, there is also the impact the fires have on communities, especially those like Seeley that thrive on tourism. Gov. Bullock said in cases where the fires impacts the local community, the state can apply for fire mitigation assistance grants from the federal government where 75 percent of the state and local costs are covered.
On August 15, he issued an Executive Order declaring a fire emergency to exist in Montana. This allowed him to continue to mobilize additional state resources and the Montana National Guard to combat the fires, and to expend funds to meet the contingencies and needs that may arise from them.
Montana began this fiscal year on July 1 with $62 million in its fire fund, but approximately $30 million was drawn from the fund to cover revenue shortfalls in the state budget. Last week state programs were facing budget cuts with part of those funds going to replenish the fire suppression fund, according to reports from Budget Director Dan Villa.