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Feast or famine

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State Forester Bob Harrington looks back over the last decade of wildfire activity in Montana and says, "There really isn't such a thing as average anymore."

In 2006 and 2007, the state's annual fire suppression costs climbed upward of $40 million. The following three seasons cost about $5 million a year or less. And as of Sept. 21, Harrington says, the state has spent $13.6 million this year (more than $5 million of that on the West Riverside Fire north of Bonner).

The economic implications are big. The light fire seasons of the past four years have been great for the state's bottom line, "but the flip side of that," Harrington says, "is that a pretty extreme fire season, where you have $40 or $50 million expended, that's $40 or $50 million going to firefighters, contractors, equipment operators, all the people who respond to fires. What we've seen over the last three years...is a lot of folks—private entities, primarily—that were either partly or wholly dependent upon fire seasons as a source of income. They're not doing very well."

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It's feast or famine for many local fire-dependent businesses. Big Sky Mobile Catering, for example, did more than $53 million worth of work for the U.S. Forest Service between 2000 and 2008, including more than $23 million during the historic summer of 2003, but the agency hasn't needed the company at all over the last three years, according to USAspending.gov.

Smokejumpers like Missoula's Seth Hansen were kept busy this summer by wildfires in Arizona and New Mexico, but those who stayed in Montana found themselves, for the fourth straight year, not getting the hours they'd hoped for. A lot of them, Hansen says, "will be trying to round up winter work, when a lot of guys would like to take the time off and travel or hang out with their families."

When this year's few fires are all mopped up, Harrington expects the state to have around $6 million remaining in the $40 million pot the legislature created for firefighting during the 2007 special session. That may be enough to fight next summer's fires—or not even close.

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