Montana Governor Told State Ready for Bad Wildfire Season

HELENA, Mont. (AP) -- Gov. Brian Schweitzer received assurances Monday that Montana will be prepared this summer for a wildfire season that many believe could be one of the worst since 1988, when more than 2 million acres burned in the Northern Rockies.

Scores of fire departments have hundreds of pumper trucks ready, and the state has 55 such fire engines, plus water tanker trucks, six helicopters, three fire detection aircraft, and 120 full-time firefighters, officials told Schweitzer in a meeting at the Capitol. The National Guard will have about 2,200 air and Army members available in addition to its six water-toting helicopters.

The only major concerns raised during an hour-long meeting on fire readiness were potential cuts in the U.S. Forest Service firefighting budget and availability of the large tanker aircraft for carrying fire retardant.

Terry Chute, Forest Service liaison to state government, said his agency expects to have at least eight large tanker planes available nationally this year. Most of the World War II-vintage craft were grounded last year for safety checks. Chute said the Forest Service is seeking contracts for 20 tanker planes this year, but the aircraft require special inspection and certification.

He also said the Forest Service may have only 50 percent to 60 percent of full funding for hiring fire crews this year, but additional money may become available if fire conditions are severe enough.

Schweitzer convened the meeting just a few days after he voiced fears about this year's fire season because of continued drought, a lack of mountain snowpack and forests jammed with fuel for flames.

''I want to know what our assets and vulnerabilities are,'' Schweitzer said.

Last week, the governor said he had asked the Pentagon to return some of the National Guard troops and equipment called up because of the Iraq war.

Bob Harrington, state forester, said one of the big questions is whether other parts of the West will be plagued by bad fires as well.

''There's a lot of country with the potential to suck resources away from Montana,'' he said.

Schweitzer said he will seek mutual aid commitments from other western governors and the leaders of western Canadian provinces should the worst-case scenario erupt in the Montana this year.

Harrington said the state can also count on help from the Forest Service and Bureau of Land Management for help, as well as the armed forces and a growing number of private contractors standing ready with pumper engines, bulldozers and other equipment needed to attack fires.

The increasing problem of wildfires in recent years has prompted more people to get into the business of providing machinery to fight the fires, said Ted Mead, fire and aviation bureau chief for the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. Those contractors will be signing up with the Forest Service soon and the state plans an ad campaign to encourage prompt registration so authorities know where the equipment is when it's needed, he said.

Col. Brad Livingston, chief of staff for Montana Adjutant General Randy Mosley, said the National Guard will have three of its 12 Blackhawk helicopters and their crews returned from Iraq and ready to fly by June. In addition, the Guard has three larger Chinook helicopters, each capable of hauling 2,000 gallons of water, he said.

If necessary, the Montana Guard can get more helicopters and crews from other states' Guard units, Livingston told Schweitzer. The governor said that capability will be critical. ''I want to be an e-mail away'' from getting assistance from outside Montana, he said.