Last week, Montana crossed another dubious threshold when a fire burning in Gallatin and Park counties qualified for federal assistance under the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA). That fire, which has grown to more than 12,000 acres and has threatened the town of Maudlow north of Belgrade, brings to five the number of Montana blazes that have been authorized for FEMA fire suppression aid so far this year.
Now that Montana has surpassed the so-called “floor cost” of its firefighting efforts—that is, the state has spent more than its 10-year average for fire suppression activities—the FEMA authorization “opens the checkbook” for 100-percent federal reimbursement of such expenses as setting up and maintaining field camps, equipment use, repair and replacement, mobilization and demobilization activities, and so on.
Despite this much-needed relief from the feds, a handful of people in the Bitterroot Valley and elsewhere remain skeptical of FEMA’s role in the fire suppression, and of the growing presence of the federal government there, as was apparent last week from a sign posted on one Bitterroot ranch gate that read, “No thanks, FEMA.” Apparently, such anti-government sentiment comes as no surprise to the folks at FEMA in Washington, D.C., who say they’ve seen and heard it before.
“The Internet is like the gossip fence, only it’s electronic now,” says FEMA spokesman Marc Wolfson. “There are these groups out there and these conspiracy theories where people believe that there’s a secret government that is going to take over and that somehow FEMA is tied in with it. I’ve worked here for six years and I’ve never seen any evidence of it.”
As with most conspiracy theories, though, there’s a small kernel of truth to be found. In the case of FEMA, Wolfson says that some fears may date back to one of FEMA’s predecessors, the Defense Civil Preparedness Agency, which was responsible for civil defense activities and operated under the auspices of the U.S. Department of Defense.
Then, of course, there was the 1998 film “The X-Files,” which wove FEMA into its tangled web of ultra-secret government intrigue and subterfuge.
Wolfson admits that there are detailed plans in place (naturally, which are classified) for the continuation of governmental functions in the event of a catastrophic event, such as a nuclear attack on Washington, D.C. Still, he emphasizes, “In no way is the government going to usurp people’s rights under the Constitution, and there is no plan to suspend the Constitution. We’re just a disaster response and recovery operation.”
And unless or until Montana’s fires reach the point where the amount of uninsured losses and damage to public infrastructure become overwhelming to the state, Wolfson says that FEMA will continue to play only a minor role in the fires. And such involvement would require a federal declaration from the President, not “The X-Files”’ Smoking Man.