Montana leaders won’t appeal FEMA denial of $44M in wildfire aid

(HELENA) State emergency managers say they won’t appeal the federal government’s decision to deny millions of dollars in additional aid to deal with Montana’s historic 2017 wildfire season.

Gov. Steve Bullock sent a letter in November, asking President Donald Trump to declare a major disaster in the state, in response to the dozens of major fires and thousands of smaller ones that burned across Montana last summer. That declaration would have given the state access to about $44 million dollars in federal aid.

But last month, administrators with the Federal Emergency Management Agency denied the request, saying the damage wasn’t so severe and so extensive that it was beyond the state’s ability to respond to it.

The state had up to 30 days to appeal FEMA’s decision and submit additional information to justify the request. But Delila Bruno, administrator for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services, said officials didn’t believe they could include enough new material to convince the agency to reverse its denial.

If Montana had received the $44 million from FEMA, Bruno said it would have been used to replenish the state fire fund. The state will not have to spend any additional money to make up for not receiving that aid.

“It basically means we’re in the same place we were at the end of the fire season,” she said. “There will be no additional impact with this denial, but it really would have been nice to receive some of those funds back in.”

Officials estimate the total cost of fighting all the wildfires around Montana in the 2017 season was around $400 million. The state did ask for and receive eight FEMA grants to help pay for fighting some of the larger fires.

Bruno said she hopes the federal government will look at possible changes to the policies for how major disasters are declared, so they could be more applicable to Montana in the future.

“We had fires going on for such an extended amount of time – large fires burning, over two dozen at any given time, 1.4 million acres burned – and yet we did not qualify for a major disaster declaration,” she said. “I think what we need to do in our downtime between busy fire seasons is to ask ourselves why. Why isn’t that hazard really included in the national conversation?”

She said one possible example is that the federal government might undervalue the resources needed to keep the many small fires that pop up in any given day.

“That one-acre fire might not be pressing down on somebody’s community at the moment, but if you don’t address that, it could turn into a major disaster,” Bruno said. “That’s what we need to make sure is being wrapped up in these considerations.”

Though wildfire season only ended a few months ago, Montana DES is already preparing for this year’s fires. Bruno urged property owners to reduce fuels around their homes and make sure first responders can get easy access if necessary.

“It’s never too early to think about next year’s fire season,” she said.