Lolo Peak Fire, Courtesy: Inciweb

FLORENCE – Wildfires continues to ravage thousands of acres of forests across the state, burning not just trees, but millions of dollars of Forest Service funding.

That cost comes from crews and equipment. Mike Cole, an information officer on the Lolo Peak Fire, said there are 1,200 hands on that fire alone.

“This fire’s in the range of about $22 million right now,” said Cole.  “It’s taken about $1.1 million a day, last few days on average.”

Senator Jon Tester (D-MT) has proposed new legislation to create a wildfire relief fund to help mitigate that cost — similar to relief funds already in place for other natural disasters.

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The Democrat believes this would help ensure the U.S. Forest Service does not have to foot the bill each fire season entirely out of its own fund, allowing that agency to pay for proactive approaches, like trail maintenance and fuel thinning.

“We’re treating it after the problem starts, and we need to make sure the Forest Service has the dollars it needs to manage the forests in a way that they know it needs to be managed,” explained Tester.  “And what’s happening now is we’re taking over half their dollars, and using them to fight fires.”

“That’s money that should be used for forest management that’s simply not there because it’s gone,” Tester added. “I mean it’s gone. For the last month, it’s been going out the door to the tune of a $1.5 million a day.  And that’s just for Montana, I might add.  That’s not California or Washington or anywhere else in the west.”

Cole explained that, for their part, fire crews reassess their needs several times a day to save as much money as possible. “So we’re constantly looking at what we need, what we don’t need,” said Cole. “And ramping up and ramping down depending on fire activity.”

But Tester said crews should have a separate fund to pay for wildfire costs, because fires are an annual occurrence.

“What’s so very, very frustrating is the fact that these fires are always going to happen, but if they had the chance to do the kind of forest management that the professionals in the Forest Service know need to be done, it could make a big difference on the cost of fighting these fires,” said Tester.

MTN’s Eric Clements