Trump administration backs off threat to audit California wildfire fighting agreement
A growing dispute between the Trump administration and California firefighting agencies over millions of dollars in back pay has ended with both sides agreeing to maintain an existing cooperation agreement, according to officials.
At stake was more than $9 million of a total $72-million reimbursement request that California made of the U.S. Forest Service after helping to battle wildfires on federal lands in 2018. Those fires included the Camp fire that killed 85 people in November 2018 and the Carr fire that killed a Redding firefighter and seven others that summer.
The reimbursement total was calculated using average salary, overtime, and other expenses for all firefighters assisting on federal incidents, the California Office of Emergency Services said. That method of billing was stipulated in the California Fire Assistance Agreement in effect from 2015-2020. However, the federal government disputed the calculation earlier this year and threatened to withhold some of the payment.
Under the agreement announced Tuesday, California will continue with its current methodology. A Forest Service employee will “help with the initial review of some invoices,” the California Governor’s Office of Emergency Services said.
The agreement appears to have reduced tensions between state and federal officials after two years of heated exchanges.
The rift became public in July 2017, when Cal OES Director Mark Ghilarducci chastised the Forest Service in official correspondence and accused the agency of dragging its feet on reimbursing local fire agencies.
“The USFS has blatantly ignored its financial responsibility to the men and women of California who have risked their lives fighting fires to protect federal land,” he wrote.
While the state eventually received the funds, President Trump began to openly criticize the state over its handling of wildfires.
In November, Trump blamed California’s forest management policies for the death and destruction caused by the Camp fire, which devastated the town of Paradise. However, the blaze spread into federal lands after being sparked by electrical transmission lines owned by the utility PG&E.
Trump’s comments were followed a week later by statements from then U.S. Interior Secretary Ryan Zinke and Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue, who blamed litigation-happy environmentalists for the state of California’s forests, even though the majority of the forested lands in the state are owned by the federal government.
Then, in February, the Forest Service told California it was withholding about $9 million until it got more information about the actual cost to fight the fire, down to the individual firefighter’s hours and overtime. It blamed Ghilarducci for triggering the audit.
“The initial impetus for the audit was a letter sent to the Forest Service Chief from the director of California Office of Emergency Services stating that the Forest Service was failing to comply with the CFAA,” the agency said in a statement.
Sen. Dianne Feinstein (D-Calif.) got involved in May when she sent a letter to federal agency heads imploring them to reconsider. Months of discussion ensued and concluded with Tuesday’s agreement, which lasts through the end of the year.
“All parties remain committed to their long-standing inter-agency partnership and to providing firefighting resources using California’s robust mutual aid system,” state and federal officials said in a joint statement.