Wildfire season has begun in Western Montana, with the West Mullan fire threatening Superior and the Gold Creek fire burning just east of Missoula. The Gold Creek fire was lightning-caused, however, the investigation continues as to how the West Mullan fire started.

Wildfires can cost millions to fight, depending upon their size, the number of personnel and equipment brought to bear, and its proximity to  homes and businesses, and that brings to mind an obvious question; who pays the costs for fighting the fires? In the case of lightning, state and federal governments set aside millions of dollars every year specifically to pay firefighting costs, but if a fire is human-caused, more and more states are handing the bills to the person or persons responsible for starting the fire.

Ted Mead is Chief of Fire and Aviation Management for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation.

"After thorough investigation, if we can determine the responsible party, then we pursue reimbursement of our costs once those are rolled up, which can take some time to add up after a fire, and then, we submit a bill in the form of a letter from our office for the cost to that individual," Mead said on Friday. "Oftentimes, there will be some discussion with the individual as to the appropriateness of that bill and where the figures come from, but our expectation, and that of the state legislature, frankly, is that we pursue reimbursement when there is a responsible party."

That principle applies, even when the cost of fighting the fire reaches into the millions of dollars.

"And they do, often for larger fires that reach into those higher figures," Mead said. "We still pursue reimbursement. Oftentimes, we will end up in a negotiation process either with an individual or an insurance company representing that individual, if they are indeed insured for those types of incidents."

Mead said the state legislation requires the agency to vigorously pursue reimbursement against the responsible party.

"Now, there are different parts of the law that differentiate between negligence and intent," he said. "Fundamentally, if someone intends to light a campfire and it escapes them, then we are legally required to pursue reimbursement of all costs involved in fighting the fire that they intentionally lit. The same principle applies in the case of negligence, we still pursue reimbursement.

Mead said the reimbursement policy has been, in his words, 'moderately successful'. The funds collected from individuals or insurance companies go back into fire suppression costs.

"We have recovered substantial amounts," Mead said. "And, its important for taxpayers to understand that when we recover those amounts, they do not jyst go into our budget. They go into a fire suppression account that the legislature has set up that pays for the cost of fighting fires. And, so, there is additional motivation for us, working for the legislators, to make sure that we do recover what we can."

Fire officials encourage anyone using fire while camping or when open burning, to make sure the fire is completely out before leaving it, or they will be required to pay the costs involved for fighting it. Fire danger in all of Montana is high, with temperatures in the mid to high 90's, conditions will be extremely dry through the rest of the summer.

Chief of Fire and Aviation Management for the Montana Department of Natural Resources and Conservation, Ted Mead