Montana faces scarce firefighting resources amid drought
HELENA, Mont. (AP) — Montana faces a shortage in firefighting resources amid a historic drought that could lead to a record-breaking wildfire season, officials said Thursday.
“If you are going to ask me which resources we are short on, I will say everything,” Sonya Germann, state forester with the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told a state water policy committee Thursday.
Montana is at the highest level of firefighting preparedness, meaning it is first in line for access to national resources. But it is competing with neighboring states in the U.S. West also gripped by a drought that contributes to fire risk. Climate change has made the region much warmer and drier in the past 30 years and causes bigger and more destructive wildfires.
“Nationally, we do not have enough resources to fight the fire that is on the landscape throughout the country,” Germann said.
Gov. Greg Gianforte on Wednesday declared a wildfire emergency, allowing him to deploy the National Guard to assist in firefighting efforts. He also has declared a drought emergency.
As of Thursday, more than 1,400 wildland fires have burned over 220 square miles (570 square kilometers) in Montana. Of those, 80% have been caused by people, Germann said.
The state entered the fire season with a full firefighting fund of about $100 million. The average cost of a fire season in Montana is $22 million. Last fiscal year, the state spent $20 million on fire suppression.
Since the beginning of the month, $3 million has been spent on fire suppression, Germann said.
“Good news is we have a flush fire suppression account; bad news is we are going to need a lot of that,” said Germann, who predicts the fire season will be “historic.”
“We’re facing August-like conditions right now in early July, and we’re not expecting those conditions to improve,” she said.
Parched conditions in Montana were compounded by a dry fall in 2020 and record-breaking heat in June, said Michael Downey, water planning section supervisor for the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.
Hot temperatures in June led to a quick loss of snowpack in mountain ranges. And unusually dry conditions were expected to remain for months to come.
“I think it’s probably likely, given the depth of the drought this year, that we’ll be moving into next year still in a drought status. It takes a while for things to bounce back,” Downey said.
In response to a request from Gianforte, the U.S. Department of Agriculture on Thursday authorized the use of some Conservation Reserve Program acres for emergency harvesting for hay and grazing to ease concerns of farmers and ranchers over the drought.
Samuels is a corps member for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a nonprofit national service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on undercovered issues.