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Forest Service faces wildfire budget crisis

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MISSOULA, Mont. - The federal government is trying to figure out how to fund wildfire suppression after a devastating fire season.

This year more than $2 billion was spent on thousands of fires across the country. The massive fires are creating a budget crisis for the Forest Service. During the 2017 fire briefing Tuesday, Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue says the time to act is now.

Sen. Steve Daines and a handful of others from states hit hard by wildfires heard staggering statistics. Perdue said he wanted to show just how severe this wildfire season was.

Across the nation 8.4 million acres burned this year. That's the size of Massachusetts. Of that, 2.3 million acres were on U.S. Forest Service land.

This fire season started last fall because of drought in the southeast. March brought fires in New Mexico and Arizona. In June there were fires in Colorado. In July they came to Montana.

"Montana saw fires July 4, July 7, July 10. And those fires didn't go out for many months. What is interesting for Montana is normally we don't get that many fires that early in Montana," said Shawna Legarza, the national fire director for the U.S. Forest Service.

At the peak of this fire season 28,000 firefighters were active. On average 16,000 people worked on fires around the country each day. Personnel and resources cost money. In Montana the feds paid nearly $400 million, while the state paid $62 million.

A new report says wildfires will consume two-thirds of the Forest Service budget by the year 2021, four years earlier than previously predicted.

"The ongoing erosion of our non-fire budget causes an ongoing shift in resources from land management to fire management," said Vicki Christiansen, the deputy chief of state and private forestry with the USDA Forest Service.

That means less money for preventive measures like prescribed burns and mechanical thinning, but Perdue says he's on it. "I'm working as hard as I can within the administration. I think we're making progress with the (Office of Management and Budget)."

NBC Montana will monitor funding as it moves through Washington, D.C.

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