Missoulian: Federal officials announce over $8 million to fight wildfires in Montana

by Zoë Buchli

 A chunk of new funding aimed at fighting wildland fires got a reveal from the U.S. Deputy Secretary of the Interior during a tour of the Blackfoot River Corridor on Wednesday.

Deputy Secretary of the Interior Tommy Beaudreau announced $185 million in federal investments through the Bipartisan Infrastructure Law. About $8.4 million of that will be directly funneled to fire prevention in Montana.

“Like many places across the West, this landscape that we’re standing in, in the Blackfoot and the Clark Fork, has seen a lot of impacts over the last 100-plus years,” said Erin Carey, Bureau of Land Management Missoula Field Manager. “Many of the lands around here were in private ownership and were industrially logged for over 100 years,” she said.

She referred to the forest along the edge of the Potomac Valley. It’s deemed a “treatment” site, an area where forest managers are working to rebuild the ecosystem. The number of homes in the Wildland Urban Interface there also add to the wildfire risk, she said.

Fire managers know what work needs to be done to protect forested lands, Beaudreau said, but investments and resources have been lacking. The Inflation Reduction Act and Bipartisan Infrastructure Law, two large spending bills passed last year, help alleviate that.

“All these projects that we’ve known for decades need to happen, we can get cracking on that,” Beaudreau said.

A critical part of the restoration work is prescribed burns, which Michael Albritton, assistant field manager at the Bureau of Land Management Missoula Field Office, said firefighters have planned for the fall. The goal for such treated lands is that when a wildfire does break out, ground will burn rather than trees, minimizing the fire’s negative effects.

“This is a very important place for us to do fuels reduction forest health treatments,” he said.

Federal money bolsters the BLM’s partnerships with Tribes and local nonprofits to manage fire mitigation efforts. The funding announcement will support pay for supplements and training opportunities for wildland firefighters. It also advances collaborative fuels management and burned area rehabilitation activities, according to the U.S. Department of the Interior.

“What you’re standing in today is going to be an example of hopefully a lot more of what’s to come across the landscape as we look to restore ecosystem function,” Carey said.

At the treatment site, Beaudreau mentioned the phone calls he fielded from East Coast senators when smoke from Canadian wildfires inundated eastern U.S. states in early June.

“There are parts of the United States where this is a regular thing,” the deputy secretary said.

In total, $12.5 million is coming from the federal government for 63 specific projects dealing with fire management work. It will be divided up between projects in several western states, including California, Colorado, Montana, New Mexico, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming.

Also on Wednesday, Sen. Jon Tester announced $780,000 to back Montana’s wildland firefighters and operational responses from the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act package.