Gazette opinion: Excuses (and the budget) go up in smoke

by Billings Gazette

Forests and money aren’t the only things going up in smoke in Montana.

So too are the excuses for many who would deny climate change as most of the West, especially Montana, is literally in flames.

This isn’t the first time the Treasure State has lost considerable amounts of its riches as both the forest and prairies have been devoured by wildfire. And, we don’t know the final tally of the damage.

Other years may have been more notable, as when Yellowstone National Park burned in 1988. Few will likely approach this fire season for sheer magnitude.

Let’s not forget that large parts of Glacier National Park have burned or been closed, including the historic Sperry Chalet. It doesn’t just cost money to fight fires, but tourism dollars are lost, hurting the surrounding communities.

Last week, Montana Gov. Steve Bullock warned that deeper cuts appeared to be in store for the state. Remember, when lawmakers skipped town after the session, they left behind an austere budget that didn’t contemplate a terrible fire season. Off-target revenue numbers and the nearly certain need to find more funding for wildfires will translate to fewer Montanans with jobs. Those who need services may not get them.

It’s easy to talk about being fiscally responsible in February. Cutting the budget then doesn’t seem like having to choose between fire protection and caring for the elderly. But come September, on the back end of a brutal fire season, that’s exactly the kind of pick-your-poison choice lawmakers have left for the governor.

Right now, some of the ideas for trimming the budget include reducing services for the elderly; it might mean eliminating drug treatment courts which send people into programs and not prison; it might mean that Montana doesn’t have a Human Rights Bureau.

We cannot fault Bullock for having to make some painful choices. That’s part of his job. And we can’t simply quit paying firefighters or stop defending against the blazes when they happen.

It is simply a matter of too many needs and too little money. But fighting fires means paying for them, too.

In one edition of The Billings Gazette last week, we counted no fewer than seven different news items about fires across Montana. On one hand, that’s life during fire season in Montana.

However, during the same week, we also have been running non-stop stories about the extraordinary hurricane and flooding in Houston. Now, with Hurricane Irma bearing down on Florida, we’re set to see another destructive side of Mother Nature.

We have indeed seen fire and we’ve seen rain.

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The devastation along the Gulf Coast certainly deserves and will keep our national attention for some time. But Hurricane Harvey has distracted from the terrible wildfire season being experienced across the West, including places like Washington and California.

It’s hard not to read the news and get a sense that the natural disasters that have been wreaked upon the U.S. are not only devastating, but also seem to be intensifying.



However, we have also been pointing out for years that climate scientists have warned that as part of global warming, weather patterns would intensify, not just warm. In other words, fire season would get longer and hotter.


We would also not just dry up because the average temperature increases. Scientists warned that we would see similar weather patterns, like hurricanes or tornadoes, but they may intensify or increase in frequency.


We can’t for certain say that any one of the thousands of fires started in Montana is directly linked to climate change. We can’t say that Harvey should be laid at the feet of those who deny change. We can’t say for certain that it was more intense because of manmade pollution.

However, we believe the question of climate change needs addressing. If politicians, especially those on the right like Rep. Greg Gianforte or Sen. Steve Daines – need any political cover so that they can begin addressing the effects of climate change, it would seem that Harvey, Irma and the West’s wildland fires have given them plenty.

We haven’t just burned through the money here in Montana as we’ve fought fires, we have also burned through the question of whether something is happening to our environment. Clearly, the best science – and the best scientists – agree that humankind’s impact is contributing to these changes.

We need honest talk and quick action to help curb this problem. We’d bet the economic impact of decreasing coal production in Colstrip will pale in comparison to the cost of firefighting, loss and rebuilding what the fires have taken. It’s not just about coal or Colstrip. Quite frankly, it’s about all of us here in Montana. It’s not just energy, it’s also tourism. It’s about being able to live in the Last Best Place.

It’s hard to see the Big Sky when it’s covered in smoke and haze.