ULA, Mont., March 12 (Reuters) - 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
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
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.
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
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.