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Fire seasons are getting longer, more difficult to handle with current resources

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Montana’s Environmental Quality Council received an update on Thursday on the total cost of the summer’s wildfires across the state.

Sue Clark, acting forestry division administrator for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, told the council the 2017 fire season was one of the hottest and driest in state history.

Altogether, firefighting costs across the state have reached nearly $400 million with DNRC paying about $62 million of that. Some of that money will be covered by grants from the Federal Emergency Management Agency.

About 1.2 million acres in Montana have burned this year. DNRC leaders said it’s becoming more difficult to deal with all the fires across the state using the resources they have now.

DNRC director John Tubbs said the fire seasons appear to be getting longer in Montana. He said that’s making it harder to find seasonal firefighters.

“I need someone that’s there for six months,” he said. “That’s not a college student.”

Council members also discussed ways to fund projects intended to reduce wildfire risk.

Currently, property owners with forested land are charged a fire protection fee of up to $50. That money then goes into a DNRC account for fire prevention.

Senator Chas Vincent, a Republican from Libby, said the current fee structure puts most of the expense on western Montana.

He suggested lawmakers should consider other ways of raising money that could include people from across the state.

“Couldn’t we maybe lower the burden on everybody in the West, still make them pay something, if we spread that out a little bit, and be able to provide resources in the West and the East?” he asked.

Vincent said it might be necessary to put a new fire protection fee before voters.

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