Iowa Public Television


Montana Wildfires Costly

posted on August 31, 2007

Hello, I'm Mark Pearson. Despite recent turmoil in the credit markets and the worst housing slump in 16 years, the U.S. economy continues to grow.

The Commerce Department reported this week that gross domestic product, the broadest measure of economic vitality, expanded at an annual rate of 4 percent in the second quarter of 2007. That's its strongest showing in more than a year, but other economic data is darkening prospects for future growth.

According to the National Board of Realtors, sales of existing homes dropped in July, for the fifth straight month, while the number of unsold homes shot up to a record level.

And consumer confidence fell in July, reflecting concerns that the worst housing slump in 16 years, a widening credit crisis, and volatile equity markets are hampering the U.S. economy.

In much of rural America, however, the most pressing concern lately has been the weather. In the Midwest, the latest calamity was too much rain... and that's bitterly ironic for the folks in Montana who have watched much of "Big Sky Country" go up in smoke.

Montana Wildfires Costly

Wildfires are still devastating forests and rangeland more than a month after an early start to the fire season. Nowhere is the damage worse than in western Montana, where fire crews are battling dry and windy conditions.

Fire Camp Briefing: "Let's go ahead and take the heat out this thing because your line is going to get tested tomorrow..."

Crews from across the U.S. and Canada have converged in the northwest corner of Montana, where many of the nation's largest and most active wildfires are spreading. The crews, sometimes numbering over 500 on an individual fire, work two-week rotating shifts and spend their days coordinating fire lines and air support.

Taking time to meet firefighters this week, Sen. Jon Tester took aim at a potential cause of an over-active fire season - global warming.

Sen. Jon Tester, D - Montana: "There are a lot of pieces to the puzzle as to why we have a fire season, but I think global warming may be the biggest piece to that puzzle. And I think when you have hotter summers, it just makes the fuel that much drier. And, anytime you have a fuel source that is that dry, it is going to burn very rapidly and very hot."

Tester estimates the cost of fighting wildfires is likely to grow and that a federal trust fund should be established for future seasons. The first-term Montana Democrat hopes to defend any appropriations in the 2007 farm bill that could help farmers and ranchers affected by the wildfires.

Sen. Jon Tester, D - Montana: "... [I] appreciate what you do."

The nation's largest fire, Montana's Chippy Creek, has already cost $12 million and has consumed nearly 100,000 acres of forest and rangeland.

While the federal government provides millions of dollars in disaster relief to the hardest hit areas, the State of Montana is quickly running out of its firefighting funds. A special state legislative session to help pay for this season's wildfires is slated for next week but fire crews do not expect all the flames to extinguish until winter snowfall.


Tags: disasters fire Montana news weather