Montana Governor Brian Schweitzer declared a state of emergency August 12 as fires burned across more than 350,000 acres of timber and grassland and scores of fire fighters struggled with an overwhelming foe. The governor's declaration makes the state eligible for federal FEMA money at the rate of 75 percent of some of the costs incurred in the losing fight.
Perhaps the Governor's more effective adjuration was "pray for the best." But those gathered in many mountain Church Camps found themselves praying for a sleeping bag in one of several Community Shelters in nearby towns, having been ushered out of picturesque church camps because of oncoming infernos.
But those far from the flames are feeling the effects. The air is rated unhealthy in many larger cities: Butte, Bozeman, Livingston, and the state capital, Helena, from which the Governor's declarations issue. Keep the kids and elderly with health problems indoors, goes the recommendation. For a time, suitcases of tourists in Helena accumulated a layer of white ash if left to stand awhile. Ashless smoke hovers over miles of once Big Sky blue. It is an asthmatic's purgatory, but a cigar smoker's paradise. Who can tell? Even the ever-present dogs riding in the backs of pickup trucks are wheezing.
A traveler moving south from the center of the state was relieved to see a vast cumulus cloud developing over the Absaroka Mountain Range. It stretched for miles, west-to-east, and as it developed it towered several thousand feet. Trouble is, it wasn't a cloud, it was a crown of smoke created by one of several fires born in the mountain range south of Livingston. It later was described as the "Wicked Creek" fire. Wyoming's eastern entrance to Yellowstone Park was closed by a nearby fire for a time. A lightning storm accounted for 18 fires in the eastern part of the state.
The damage is longterm. The gray ghosts of towering pines still remind of a famed fire in 1906. Miles of Yelllowstone Park bear mute evidence of the fires of 1988.
It is clear that neither the feds nor the state were ready for this, though 13 years of drought in the region was giving a hint. The Forest Service had 41 air tankers in 2002 and had but 19 under contract going into this season. The Service is trying out something new this year it has dubbed AMR -- appropriate management response. A series of informational items are fed into computers which will tell the Service whether to fight a fire, toy with it, or watch it. In early July, a fire broke out in the Bob Marshall Wilderness along the Continental Divide. It was named "Fool Creek." A District Ranger said it was in rough country, would be hard to reach. An information officer said, "We're not just sitting back and watching. We are actively monitoring this fire." The "Fool Creek" fire has grown to 33,608 acres and is being actively fought.
Before the summer dry season set in, the state was blessed, and cursed, with generous spring rains. They grew good wheat and oats, but also wild grasslands, cheat grass and the like, more than waist high. These now are fuel.
Unknown to most Montanans, the neighboring state of Idaho has embarked on an ambitious cloud seeding program. The Idaho Public Utilities Commission is allowing the Idaho Power Company to pass along the costs of its cloud seeding to the customers. Idaho Power contends the additional streamflows produced by cloud seeding generate more electricity for its hydroelectric facilities and prevents its having to buy power elsewhere. The company's most recent seeding program began in 2001 during another drought emergency. Cloud seeding in the 2002-03 winter produced an estimated 110,000 acre feet of extra water to feed the generators; 2003-04 cloud seeding produced another 68,000 acre feet. And there are other cloud seeding programs in the state.
Question of course: Who owns the water carried in the air? Does Idaho Power, with the state's backing, have the right to wring water from the western wind that next flows over Montana?
Just thought I'd ask.