KATIE OYAN Associated Press Writer HELENA
Gov. Brian Schweitzer on Monday called a special legislative session for Sept. 5 so lawmakers can allocate more money to pay for fighting wildfires this summer. At a Capitol news conference, Schweitzer said he will request an additional $55 million that could be put toward this year's firefighting efforts and next year's, along with other emergencies that might come up, such as snowstorms or earthquakes. "Unless you've been living under a rock, you know we've had a big fire season this year, and fires cost money," Schweitzer said. "The Legislature left a strong fund balance in the bank. This is a matter of moving money from savings to checking so we can pay our bills." During the regular legislative session earlier this year, lawmakers put $16 million in the emergency fund, which includes money for fighting fires. Schweitzer had requested $25 million, plus a special account that could be used just for wildfire costs. The governor said the estimated cost for fighting fires so far this year is $32 million. But he said the 2007 fire season isn't over, despite cooler weather. "In eastern Montana, the fire season can go well into October," Schweitzer said. The $55 million he's requesting includes $34 million specifically for this year's firefighting costs; $10 million for next year's firefighting costs; and $9 million that would be available to the emergency fund if needed, said Mary Sexton, director of the state Department of Natural Resources and Conservation. The governor also seeks to increase the emergency-disaster appropriation permitted by law from $16 million to $25 million per biennium, and eliminate time restrictions on declarations of disasters and emergencies during fire season. Many legislators already have been contacted about the special session; they likely will arrive in Helena on Sept. 4 for committee meetings, Schweitzer said. The special session "shouldn't take longer than a day," he said. "I don't think the Legislature will come to town and be partisan over our fire bills." At least one Republican leader said he was not opposed to the special session but worried it "might be premature." "As Republicans, we want to pay our bills, and we want to do it in a timely fashion," said House Majority Leader Dennis Himmelberger of Billings. "But I will offer a little bit of concern. The fire season is still going on. We don't know what's going to happen here." He said there a still a few unknowns, such as what the total fire costs will be and how much the federal government will cover. Waiting to hold the special session until later in the fall could prevent lawmakers from having to hold another special session later, he said, adding the meeting was an added expense for taxpayers. In 2006, almost 1 million acres burned in Montana, costing the state about $37 million after reimbursements. So far this year, fires have blackened more than 458,000 acres, or 716 square miles. Sexton said firefighting costs are "substantially higher" this year because many of the fires were burning in western Montana, in populated areas with a lot of trees. Last year, more of the wildfires burned on rangeland, she said.