As California braces for another extreme fire year, rising tensions have so alarmed the state’s senior senator that she sent a letter this week, calling for a truce.
“Around 60% 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 the U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicky Christensen.
According to the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services (OES), the Forest Service still owes 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 the federal agency.
The disagreement between state and federal fire officials now threatens to upend negotiations to extend that agreement, which state Fire and Rescue Chief Brian Marshall said is essential to combat not just wildfires, but other natural disasters in California.
“Local government fire departments are out this money and they’re getting ready to close their books,” Marshall said.
Reimbursement rates are only part of the California government’s concerns, however.
In an April 24 letter to Randy Moore, the regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Division of the Department of Agriculture, Marshall warned that new reimbursement requirements that the Forest Service plans 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,” Marshal 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 fire.
The California Fire Chiefs Association, California Metro Chiefs, Fire Districts Association of California and League of California Cities Fire Chiefs also sent a joint letter to the Forest Service on April 25 objecting to “unilateral, mid-contract changes to its reimbursement protocols for local agencies” under the DFAA.
OES Director Mark Ghilarducci wrote a letter to the Forest Service in 2017, complaining that the federal agency was failing to comply with their joint firefighting agreement.
In response, the Forest Service began the audit that it completed in January. It has not shared the audit with the state, but it informed state agencies of its conclusions in February.
The new demands from the Forest Service also come against the backdrop of an ongoing political fight between California and President Donald Trump, who has lobbed a series of critiques and threats regarding the cost of fighting wildfires in the state.
“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump 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!”