State fire agencies waiting for federal reimbursement as fire season approaches

A firefighter crew poses for a photo after reaching full containment of the Ferguson Fire, Sunday morning, Aug. 19, 2018. COURTESY OF SIERRA NATIONAL FOREST

Summer is coming, and so is fire season. California had a devastating fire season in 2018, and the state is bracing itself for this next one.

According to reports from The Los Angeles Times and The Sacramento Bee, the federal government, specifically the US Department of Agriculture and the US Forest Service, is withholding reimbursements owed to California. State fire agencies are saying that this money is owed for battling wildfires on federal lands during last year’s fire season.

The LA Times reported, “The Forest Service conducted an audit of the California Fire Assistance Agreement and now accuses the state of overbilling.”

Furthermore, California Office of Emergency Services Fire Chief Brian Marshall reported that the audit itself is being withheld by the federal government and that officials were only briefed on some portions of the report.

In addition to this report, Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent a letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and Forest Service Chief Vicki Christiansen regarding the matter. In the letter, Sen. Feinstein wrote, “Around 60 percent of 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.”

She continued by emphasizing the importance of the state’s firefighting forces and its work of fighting fires on federal land. The senator also asked that the federal government delay the implementation of “any recommended actions from the recently completed internal audit.”

Reports state that the federal government owes close to $9.3 million to local fire agencies for their work in 2018 (the Sacramento Bee states that this comes from the Governor’s Office of Emergency Services).

It is unclear when the matter will be resolved and when local fire agencies will receive the owed money.

The Forest Service has reimbursed the California OES since 1961 for the costs of local, state, and fire volunteers who fight fires on federal lands. The current partnership –– the California Fire Assistance Agreement –– between the state and federal government runs between 2015 and 2020, and Cal OES argues that the federal government is unfairly changing the terms of agreement.