WICKES, Mont. -- Just days after the High Ore Road fire swept through Wickes, Montana, FEMA director James Lee Witt went there with Senators Burns and Baucus and Governor Racicot to meet with fire officials and volunteer firefighters. He said he wanted to see areas impacted by the wildfires and to hear first hand what additional resources are needed to fight the fires.
After fire officials described the severity of the blazes still burning in the state and the continuing need for additional resources and trained personnel, Witt said, "FEMA will pay 100 percent of eligible state and local firefighting costs."
A child's bicycle and several toys were still smoldering nearby as Witt listened to a volunteer firefighter express his concerns about the need for additional resources and a way to pay volunteer firefighters during their extended assignments on the fires. Several volunteers have used their vacation time from their regular jobs to fight the blazes.
Witt said he wrote to Governor Racicot the day before to alert him that FEMA would expand reimbursements to Montana to include local governmental and volunteer firefighting organizations.
"This is the first time we have ever done this," Witt said. "In a situation like this we have to be flexible enough to make things work."
Senator Burns said there were several conditions that came together this year that contributed to the devastating fire season.
"We have a fuel load on the forest floor that is heavier than ever before," Burns said. "We are in dryer times and have not had much snow last year or the year before. So you only lack one element - lightning. That's what we have had this year."
Just before leaving to return to Washington DC, Witt said he understood the critical role volunteer firefighters play and that his son living in Arkansas is a volunteer firefighter.
"Bring him out here," one of the firefighters said with a laugh. "We need him too."
Fire officials estimate that more than 352,000 acres in Montana have burned.