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A wildland firefighter works the North Hills Fire

A wildland firefighter works the North Hills fire outside Helena.

As fire season takes hold in Montana, the state's fire fund is set to receive a $30 million infusion, bringing its total to $66.5 million next month.

Under state law, if the state hits a threshold for unspent general fund money it must transfer a set amount into the fire fund. The move will take place by Aug. 15.

The office of Montana Gov. Steve Bullock said state agencies finished the fiscal year under budget, allowing for the transfer. The legislative session that ended in April, through the budget crafted by lawmakers and Bullock's vetoes of spending bills totaling about $85 million, left the state with an ending fund balance of $358 million for the fiscal year just starting. Legislation from the previous session, tweaked this year, allows for a budget stabilization reserve fund that will likely reach $100 million, Bullock's office said Tuesday.

The cost of fighting fires in 2017, when more than a million acres burned, depleted the state's fire fund and played a part in massive budget cuts across state government that year. The fire fund started out at $60 million that summer, which was quickly spent down. Total fire fighting costs that season, just for the state, reached about $75 million.

Going into the summer of 2018, which was a quieter fire year, the fund only had $4 million. It was rebuilt through transfers, including money from a deal with the private prison contractor Core Civic that involved extending its contract, and legislative action.

The fire fund was created by the 2007 Legislature and is appropriated to the Department of Natural Resources and Conservation to fight fires. The governor also has access to a $16 million emergency fund that can be used to pay for fighting fires.

At a briefing in June, officials said while the state — aside from seeing continued dryness in the northwestern part of Montana — could expect a cooler and wetter summer, rising temperatures are a problem.

Over the weekend, the state got a federal Fire Management Assistance Grant from FEMA to help pay for the costs of the North Hills fire outside Helena. The grant opens up FEMA funding to pay for 75% of eligible state costs, plus $450,000 in federal mitigation funding.

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The state Auditor's Office on Tuesday also encouraged people who are or could be affected by wildfires to review their insurance policies. Some policies cover indirect losses from wildfires, like smoke or fire retardant damage. Living expenses can also be covered for people forced to evacuate if they keep track of costs and receipts. Those whose property is damaged by fire are encouraged to take photos before cleanup to document conditions.

The office has a checklist on its website, csimt.gov, for people to take inventory of their possessions that could be damaged or lost in a fire. Keep paper copies in a fireproof safe and save a digital copy as well.

People should also review their policies to make sure outbuildings, shops and barns are covered.

More information is available at http://csimt.gov/your-insurance/fire/.

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State Bureau reporter for The Independent Record.

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