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Aggressive attacks on fires money well spent

| August 14, 2022 12:00 AM

The fury of the Elmo 2 Fire met its match last week.

The human-caused blaze that had its way with the tinder-dry grass and timber on the Flathead Reservation west of Flathead Lake was promptly hushed by an overwhelming onslaught from more than 600 firefighters and a relentless air attack.

More than 2.5 million gallons of water has been dropped on the fire since it began July 29, along with nearly 500,000 gallons of fire retardant. Super scoopers, single-engine air tankers, helicopters, water tenders and heavy machinery all have assisted in the remarkable effort.

As of Friday, the 21,000-acre fire was at 75% containment, and more than 500 firefighters remained on the scene to help secure fire lines and douse hot spots.

Unfortunately, eight structures were lost when the wind-driven blaze raced toward Lake Mary Ronan and Camp Tuffit, but the losses could have been far greater — hundreds of structures were threatened at one point.

The aggressive initial attack and continued flow of resources that saved those homes reflects back to Gov. Greg Gianforte’s commitment to do whatever it takes to extinguish all wildfires in the state this summer, whether they’re on state or federal forestland, tribal reservations or wilderness areas.

“In Montana, we do not, and will not, have a ‘let it burn’ policy,” the Republican governor told land managers at a fire briefing in early May.

“We will respond immediately to fire with one primary goal, and that is to put that fire out as safely and quickly as possible.”

So far, to Montanans’ delight, he’s kept that promise.

Of course, such aggressive attacks don’t come cheap.

The two-week total to fight the Elmo 2 Fire dinged $13.3 million on Friday — a number that promises to climb much further as crews work to achieve 100% containment in the coming weeks. Meanwhile, the nearby Redhorn Fire on the Mission Mountains is also drawing a healthy response, with a tab of $1.5 million and counting.

The average annual cost for fire suppression in the state was about $23.3 million over the last decade. The Elmo and Redhorn fires alone have eaten away half of that amount in just two quick weeks.

The state’s fire suppression fund isn’t in jeopardy yet — the estimated fire fund balance for FY 2022 was $58 million at the beginning of the year. But by all accounts, this summer’s fire season has been comparatively mild. In 2017 when 1.4 million acres burned in Montana, the cost to the state approached the $100 million mark.

As Gianforte looks to continue his zero tolerance approach to wildfires, he should also look to shore up the state’s fire fund to match these aggressive attacks in seasons ahead.

Even the most fiscally conservative Montanans would agree that putting out wildfires as fast as possible is money well spent. Let’s make sure the state coffers are ready for the next bad fire season.

Thank you to all the firefighters who are working day and night to keep the Elmo 2 Fire in check. Your continued efforts are appreciated by all of us that call Northwest Montana home.

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