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The Costs Of Fighting Wildfires In Montana


A wildfire in Montana has burned more than 400 square miles. Most of it was range land, brush and timber. Some houses were also in that zone. And it's just one of many big Montana fires right now. Montana Public Radio's Eric Whitney says firefighters are asking who's going to pay to fight them?

ERIC WHITNEY, BYLINE: The view from the porch of Sarah Browning's ranch house in central Montana takes in a vast sweep of territory burned by the Lodgepole Complex of fires. She describes watching the flames and smoke on the edge of the fire sweep across her property.

SARAH BROWNING: It was just a wall of black came at us and it just covered us. And it was daylight out, and it just turned black. You couldn't see right in front of you.

WHITNEY: Then, she says, the landscape was transformed.

S. BROWNING: And when it started lifting in a matter of just two minutes, the whole valley was on fire.

WHITNEY: Hundreds of firefighters from 34 states are now arriving to battle the Lodgepole. But the response took nearly a week. The handful of ranchers and local volunteer firefighters who initially jumped on it were quickly overwhelmed. Montana Senator Jon Tester is not happy with the size or speed of the response from the federal government.

This is him on the Senate floor earlier this week complaining about a request for FEMA emergency funds that was denied.


JON TESTER: Places like Garfield County are being forced to ask for donations to get volunteer firefighters, the fuel that they need to save lives and to protect property. And this is unacceptable.

WHITNEY: The state of Montana had more than $60 million in state funds set aside to fight fires this year. But a budget crunch has cut that number in half. Montana has already spent more than $10 million fighting fires this summer. Governor Steve Bullock has declared a state of emergency, allowing him to mobilize the National Guard and to tap a different state emergency fund.

He's reassuring state residents.

STEVE BULLOCK: You know, money certainly won't be an issue. We're going to deploy every resource necessary to protect Montanans and their property.

WHITNEY: Incident commanders on at least 17 large fires in Montana are requesting help through the National Interagency Fire Center. A spokesperson there says they're all getting the crews, equipment and aircraft that they're asking for. That help is coming too late for ranchers like Tim Browning, who've already seen their grazing land destroyed along with the hay they put up to feed their cattle this winter.

TIM BROWNING: Hell (laugher) is about as close as you can explain it.

WHITNEY: Experienced fire managers here say they're expecting several fires to get significantly bigger. Hot, dry weather and little chance of rain is in the forecast for now. For NPR News, I'm Eric Whitney in Missoula, Mont. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Eric Whitney is NPR's Mountain West/Great Plains Bureau Chief, and was the former news director for Montana Public Radio.