God Help Us all.


HELENA - Despite fears of an early, explosive fire season, lawmakers have so far allocated only $3.7 million extra for firefighting over the next two years. That amount - which would pay for a new helicopter, 15 new wildland fire engines loaned to counties, and other fire-related needs - would bring to $19 million the amount of the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation spends on wildland fires over two years.

In 2003, the last major fire season in Montana, the state ended up owing about $73 million in firefighting costs. The state paid about $37 million of that out of pocket. DNRC Director Mary Sexton and State Forrester Bob Harrington said $19 million would be enough despite the threat of forest fires this year because the state traditionally doesn't allocate any money for individual wildfires, and this year would be no exception.

Instead, the state spends what it must to combat out-of-control fires and then asks the Legislature to backfill its empty coffers. Gov. Brian Schweitzer has proposed leaving a larger-than-normal $80 million in the bank to pay for firefighting, federal budget cuts and potential revenue shortfalls. Republican leaders and some legislative financial analysts warn that such a system may not be wise. House Republican Leader Roy Brown of Billings said he thinks the Legislature should allocate something to pay for wildfire costs, especially when forest fires are so likely. Terry Johnson, a principal legislative fiscal analyst, said that while $80 million may sound like a lot of money, by law the governor can't spend it all even in an emergency without cutting other state spending. That $80 million is left in what's called an "ending fund balance," he said. That means the money is what's left over after lawmakers have crafted and passed the state's budget. By law, the ending fund balance cannot fall below 1 percent of the state's two-year budget. When that happens, the governor must cut state spending. One percent of the budget currently in the works is about $30 million, he said.

If the 2005 fire season is anything like 2003, the state can expect to spend around $37 million on emergency firefighting costs. That would leave $43 million in the state's ending fund balance, Johnson said, just $13 million above the threshold that spells spending cuts. Furthermore, he said, the state budget is built on the best estimates of taxes that will come in over the next two years. Those estimates could be wrong, he said, and $13 million isn't much of a margin of error. But Schweitzer, DNRC officials and Rep. Rosie Buzzas, D-Missoula, chairwoman of the committee crafting the budget, defend the system.

Harrington compared the situation to the military. The $19 million, he said, will pay for the state's standing crew of 55 engines and 120 firefighters and other fire-related resources. "That's the army," he said.

Montana allocates nothing, however, to pay for what Harrington called "the war," fires that escape early control efforts and become major wildfires. Wildfires are difficult to predict, Schweitzer noted. The state could get lucky and not have a major fire season. But if it had already allocated money for firefighting, it wouldn't have it to spend on other emergencies. "That may not be the best use of our money," he said in an interview. "We think the best use is to make sure we keep that ending fund balance at $80 million."

Buzzas said that although lawmakers aren't yet done with the budget, she's hoping to keep $80 million in the bank for fires. "That's still our target," she said. "I think it's enough." Harrington said he's not concerned about having enough money to pay for firefighting. The money will come from somewhere, he said.

"The concern for funding comes from the Legislature and the governor's office and all the state programs that would be impacted if we have huge supplemental (fire) costs," he said. "That would force a special session, at which time either taxes would have to be raised or programs would have to cut to pay for that."

The state's standing firefighting resources are mostly to corral small fires before they get big, and to be on hand to manage fires. But figures from the 2003 season show the state's 55 engines are not enough to battle a serious forest fire. Between May and November of 2003, the state leased engines on 607 occasions at a cost of $5.8 million.