State looking to alternate resources with potential for above-average fire season in the West

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HELENA, Montana — With an above-average fire season predicted for Montana and throughout the West, state officials are looking to alternative firefighting resources.

Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation Director John Tubbs said Wednesday federal resources could become stressed if active fire seasons occur in the multiple states in the midst of drought and dry conditions.

"It's shaping up bad for the states around us," Tubbs said, adding that dry conditions are creeping into southwestern and southeastern parts of Montana. "If we have a big season, we will be in a queue of priorities. We could be overwhelmed."

State forester Bob Harrington said mountains have been shedding water since March, and without precipitation in the next six weeks, people could see some large fires in the state this year.

"In this snapshot in time the idea that the Northern Rockies and the Pacific Northwest as well as California and the Great Basin are all experiencing either historic droughts, or really dry years in our case, is cause for concern just because ... there's not enough national resources to adequately address that," he said.

In preparation, the DNRC has been training 150 paid firefighters and hundreds of volunteers and has been in contact with National Guard teams that can be available at the call of the governor. Montana also has a large number of private contract firefighters that can be hired in a pinch, Tubbs said, and they've already sought pricing information for those services.

Additionally, the state is part of a compact that includes access to firefighting resources in Northwestern states and Canadian territories. Tubbs said they're talking with Canadian officials about staging air tankers along the border should conditions warrant. The state must pay for their services as well and did during an active 2012 fire season.

"The state of Montana brought in and paid for the service at a daily available rate, but they were essential for us," he said of the Canadian resources.

The dedicated wildland fire suppression fund, created by the Legislature in 2013, has about $44 million in it with the possibility of up to another $20 million by the end of the year.

In 2012, the state spent about $50 million fighting fires. In an average fire season, Harrington said the state spends from $17 million to $20 million.

"If these (dry) conditions hold, then we've seen $50 to $75 million fire seasons, net costs," Harrington said. "We're just going to watch it. We're ready."

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