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FEMA denies Montana’s request for disaster declaration, $15M in wildfire aid

Posted at 5:46 PM, May 18, 2018
and last updated 2018-07-05 14:56:03-04

HELENA – State emergency managers say the federal government has again denied their request for millions of dollars in additional aid to deal with Montana’s historic 2017 wildfire season.

Federal Emergency Management Agency leaders rejected the state’s appeal to declare a major disaster, saying in a letter that the fires were “not of the severity and magnitude that warrants a major disaster declaration.”

If FEMA had declared a major disaster, it would have freed up $14.8 million in additional funding. Most of the money would have been used to fill up the state’s depleted fire fund.

FEMA initially rejected Montana’s request for a major disaster declaration in December. The state was asking for a total of $44 million at that time. Leaders then appealed the decision, reframing the fires as a weather-related disaster. They focused on the period from Sept. 1 to Sept. 20, when weather conditions were most severe, and reduced the size of the request.

“It was something we knew was going to be a long shot to do,” said Delila Bruno, administrator for Montana Disaster and Emergency Services. “We felt it was important enough to keep putting that out there and let our federal partners and the state know that this is something we take very seriously and we want to keep on everybody’s radar.”

Despite FEMA’s decision not to declare a major disaster, Bruno said the agency is working with the state to provide other forms of aid. FEMA provided eight grants last year to help pay for fighting some of the larger individual fires. Bruno said they are now talking about the possibility of additional grants to pay for mitigation projects in areas affected by each of those fires.

“We can look at how we can reduce the impacts for future wildland fires in these communities,” she said.

Each of those grants would be around $300,000 to $400,000, for a total of up to $3 million.

“While we didn’t get our disaster declaration, we do know that FEMA’s paying attention to the wildfire needs in Montana,” Bruno said. “Whether we’re working with them on the flood fight or the fire activity, we continue to have a good relationship with them and are certain that they’re doing everything they can to help us out.”

More than 1.4 million acres across Montana burned in last year’s wildfires. Officials estimate the total cost of fighting the fires at around $400 million.