Politics & Government

U.S. Forest Service relents in California firefighting dispute, state to recoup millions

How the Tahoe National Forest is using fire to fight fire

Brian Crawford and Shelly Allen of the U.S. Forest Service talk on Friday, May 24, 2019, about prescribed burns in the Tahoe National Forest and how policies might change to allow natural fires to burn longer if conditions are right.
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Brian Crawford and Shelly Allen of the U.S. Forest Service talk on Friday, May 24, 2019, about prescribed burns in the Tahoe National Forest and how policies might change to allow natural fires to burn longer if conditions are right.

The state of California and the U.S. Forest Service reached an agreement late Tuesday on federal reimbursement rates for local firefighters, ending a tense standoff that had alarmed state officials.

In a joint letter to California fire departments, leaders of the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (Cal Fire), and the Forest Service’s Pacific Southwest regional forester announced they had agreed to continue their firefighting partnership under existing reimbursement guidelines.

That should smooth the path for California fire departments to receive the more than $9 million in outstanding payments they say they are owed by the federal government for fighting fires on federal land in 2018.

In their letter, Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci, Cal Fire Director Thom Porter and Forest Service Regional Forester Randy Moore write that the Forest Service “will continue to recognize the use of average actual salary rates as a basis for reimbursements” to local fire departments in California.

The federal agency had threatened to adjust the reimbursement standards, jeopardizing millions of dollars in federal payments firefighters had been expecting, after an audit found what the agency claimed were inaccurate invoices “resulting in potential overpayments.”

“The audit found several areas where the (agreement) is not being managed to ensure mutual benefit between the Forest Service and the State of California,” a Forest Service spokeswoman told McClatchy in May.

The agency informed state officials of the audit’s conclusions in February.

As of May, the Forest Service still owed local fire departments $9.3 million in reimbursements for costs incurred during the 2018 fire season, out of $72 million total that state firefighters billed to the federal agency, according to California officials.

The disagreement between state and federal fire officials had threatened to upend negotiations to extend the California Fire Assistance Agreement (CFAA), a federal-state partnership that was which inked in 2015 and expires in 2020, prompting a stern warning from California’s senior senator.

“Around 60 percent of forested land in California is owned by the federal government. Wildfires don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries, so a unified federal-state approach is the only way to properly protect lives and property,” Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote in a May 14 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicky Christensen.

In an April 24 letter to Moore of the Forest Service, state Fire and Rescue Chief Brian Marshall warned that new reimbursement requirements that the Forest Service wanted to enforce “would be cumbersome and would severely impact California’s ability to respond to fires.”

In particular, the new requirements “will have a significant impact on volunteer fire agencies,” Marshall wrote, because those agencies have to be reimbursed before they can pay their firefighters. Volunteer firefighters make up one-third of the local fire departments that respond to federal and state requests for help fighting fires, he wrote.

As part of the new agreement between the state and the Trump administration, Forest Service personnel will be embedded within OES offices “to help with the initial review of some invoices.”

And the Forest Service “may seek further clarification of reimbursement requests,” the letter added.

The firefighting truce prompted words of praise from a state that is frequently at odds with the Trump administration — and a frequent target of the president’s wrath.

Trump has lobbed a series of critiques and threats regarding the cost of fighting wildfires in California.

“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” the president tweeted in January. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”

On Wednesday, however, Gov. Gavin Newsom issued a statement thanking “our federal colleagues for continuing to productively partner with the California to maintain a robust mutual aid system to protect life and property against the growing threat of wildfires and other Natural Disasters.”

“I appreciate the efforts of U.S. Forest Service and the U.S. Department of Agriculture and their willingness to work jointly with Cal OES and Cal Fire as well as California Fire Service to remedy this situation,” Ghilarducci said.

Feinstein also issued a statement Wednesday saying she was “pleased the Forest Service has agreed to maintain the California Fire Assistance Agreement for the rest of the year.”

“Cal Fire is one of the most professional, well-organized and highly skilled firefighting forces in the world, and I’m glad the federal government will continue to rely on that expertise and partnership,” she said.