Montana's worst fire season in years is expected to scorch the drought-stricken landscape well into fall, long after the state's firefighting reserves run out thanks to politicians diverting millions of dollars to fill a budget shortfall.
There is only $12 million left of the $63 million in the firefighting fund in June, and the state is burning through that at a rate of $1.5 million a day, state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation director John Tubbs said this week.
"We will use up the remaining balance in fairly short order," he said.
The state's financial worries come as forecasters for the National Interagency Fire Center predict that eastern Montana, Southern California and the western Dakotas could be exposed to major wildfire threats into October or November.
A wet winter and spring produced thick grasses in the region, but a hot June melted the snow and dried out the vegetation, leaving it vulnerable to lightning-caused fires, said Bryan Henry, a meteorologist for the fire center.
The threat of major wildfires also will remain high throughout August in northern Nevada and parts of the Northwest and northern Great Plains, he said.
More fires are now burning in Montana than any other state. So far, they have torched 578 square miles — an area larger than Wyoming's Grand Teton National Park — through both mountain timber in the west and grasslands in the east.
That's already surpassed the land burned every year since 2012, when 1,907 square miles burned in Montana, costing the state $55 million.
Most of the fires started in July. The state spent $21 million fighting fires that month — equal to the amount it spent for the 12 months before that, Tubbs said.
The eruption of wildfires caught state lawmakers and officials off guard after forecasts in the spring predicted only a moderate fire season. That's when lawmakers passed a measure mandating that $30 million be transferred out of the fire fund if the state's income came in lower than revenue forecasts.
The revenue numbers came in last month, triggering the transfer and a slew of budget cuts across state government.
Republican Sen. Pat Connell of Hamilton said he is concerned that another major fire could erupt at any time without enough money left in the fire fund.
"We've got a long way to go through this fire season, and I'm very scared about our future," Connell said.
If the fund runs dry, state officials will still be able to respond to fires, Tubbs said. His department can pull up to $22 million from the state's general fund, and an earlier fire disaster declaration by Gov. Steve Bullock authorized an additional $16 million.
But with the revenue shortfall, it's not clear how much cash is available. Tubbs said that will be a challenge for the governor's budget director.
Some relief came when the U.S. government last week approved a grant that will allow the state to recover three-quarters of its costs to fight its largest fire burning in eastern Montana. The amount of the savings is not yet clear.
The state is also entering into cost-sharing agreements to fight fires with the U.S. Forest Service, which will also help, Tubbs said.
What was, until earlier last week, the nation's largest wildfire is now under control. But as ranchers receive donations of hay and other supplies from around the country, they're surveying the land, seeing how and if the livestock survived the so-called Lodgepole Fire.
They may have to sell livestock because there's no more usable grazing land and the price of hay has skyrocketed. But that's just this year — the immediate effects of the fire.
The Lodgepole Complex fires didn't just wipe out this year, they wiped out years to come. Many ranchers will likely have to sell off cattle to survive — losing years of carefully honed genetics. Other ranchers will have to wait until 2019 to see new calves reach market age — and who knows how they'll make it until then. And for new, young ranchers, the fires may have wiped out their budding businesses before they even got on their feet.
It's not just about acres of grazing land or head of cattle. It's also the less obvious losses like fencing — nearly 1,400 miles of which has been charred beyond use. The cost of replacing the fencing alone is estimated at $15 million, not to mention the cattle those fences will keep penned in.
Brett Dailey, leaning against his tractor and peering down toward the highway as he awaited a delivery of hay Thursday, noted his relative luck. His Weeding Ranch west of Jordan had been spared by the blaze, although he lost a smaller pasture in the heart of the burn area where he typically grazes his yearling cattle.
“The main thing is if those people can find a place to take those cattle,” Dailey said. “Some of them have worked for generations on those genetics, and to take them to the market now, they’re losing a lifetime of work.”
Trucks of donated hay are coming from as far away as West Virginia, said Anne Miller, a spokeswoman for the firefighting team, but it may not be enough to get ranchers through the rest of the season. The cost of feeding cattle during the drought could be staggering compared to a typical year, with the average price of hay in the region hovering around $180 per ton, compared with a more normal range of $100 to $120 per ton.
Jay Bodner, the natural resources director for the Montana Stockgrowers’ Association, has spent much of the week fielding phone calls from worried ranchers affected by the fires. Respiratory damage from heat and smoke inhalation often gives way to infection, he said, and hooves burned by the grass fires may slough off during the next three weeks.
Cows and calves likely suffered weight loss if they were displaced by the fires, especially those that got lost and spent days wandering without food or water. If cow/calf pairs were separated too long, Bodner added, the young will become weaned too early and will weigh far less than they would have otherwise.
“They’re going to be coming in much earlier than (the ranchers) had forecast,” he said. “The phase right now, they’re trying to gather cows and just do an initial assessment.”
But in the long term, he said, the combined financial setbacks from livestock loss, selling cattle early and replacing fences and other infrastructure destroyed by the fires will be overwhelming for many ranchers. Some pregnant cows will likely have to be sold off to make ends meet, meaning stock growers will have to buy them back next year to restart the process of impregnating and raising calves for the 2019 season.
”Each one of those could be a year, two or three years, to recover from something like that,” he said.
The federal government offers several forms of assistance to ranchers affected by the combined severe drought and wildfires that have wracked the region, but funding is limited, and some of it won’t be available until next year.
And unlike farmers, ranchers lack access to the crop insurance programs that help to defray the lack of income during a catastrophic drought or weather event.