Montana Governor Sets Off Fight with Call to Bring Guard Home
Sunday 13 March 2005
Sula, Mont. - Gov. Brian Schweitzer has touched off a political fight with Montana Republicans after calling for the return of National Guard troops serving in Iraq to help out in what many fear will be a record-setting wildfire season.
Mr. Schweitzer, a newly elected Democrat, infuriated Republican lawmakers who see his request as a way to criticize the Bush administration over Iraq.
"He's figured out how to use the wildfire season to protest the Iraq war," said Bob Keenan, the state Senate Republican leader. "It's an antiwar statement and condemnation of Bush's actions."
The governor and his supporters deny those accusations in a growing political battle that comes as weather experts say a seven-year drought and a severely reduced snowpack could lead to a devastating summer of wildfires.
They also worry that limited resources stretched thinner by the National Guard's service overseas could make it hard to combat the kind of huge blazes that engulfed the state in 2000, when some 2,400 wildfires burned nearly 950,000 acres of mostly public land.
"Everything right now is pointing to the possibility of a large and damaging fire season," said Bruce Thoricht, meteorologist with the federal Northern Rockies Coordination Center in Missoula.
Governor Schweitzer said Montana would disproportionately suffer the pain of proposed cuts in the federal budget, with money allocated for firefighting cut in half.
As fire season approaches, about 1,500 of Montana's 3,500 National Guard troops have been deployed on federal active duty, said a Montana Guard spokesman, Maj. Scott Smith.
A Pentagon spokesman, Lt. Col. Mike Milord, said in an e-mail message that deals with neighboring states would provide for more troops during emergencies this summer.
The bulk of the Guard's helicopters - critical in shuttling fire crews and equipment to blazes - are unavailable, either because they are in Iraq or their aviation officers are absent.