The Trump administration is withholding millions of dollars in reimbursement requests made by local California fire departments that fought wildfires on federal lands last year, as the state braces itself for the next wildfire season, the Guardian reports.
Following the most expensive and disastrous season of wildfires ever recorded, the state requested $72 million in reimbursements for the cost of local firefighters’ work on federal lands. But instead of reimbursing the local departments in full, the U.S. Forest Service decided to audit the initial agreement and has decided to withhold $9 million from California agencies.
“A local fire department doesn’t budget to go help the US Forest Service,” said fire chief for the California office of emergency services Brian Marshall. “You pay it up front, expecting reimbursement. If you don’t get the money, a fire chief’s job could be in jeopardy because then they’re operating in the red and the elected officials start asking the tough questions. And that’s unacceptable.”
The Forest Service asserts that the audit was provoked by a letter from the director of the state office of emergency services in 2017 that denounced the federal agency’s reimbursement policies. Federal officials claim that local agencies aren’t being reimbursed in full because the Forest Service was not given “documentation that substantiate[s] actual expenses.”
Our intentions are to fully reimburse the state of California for all of their actual expenses,” the federal agency said.
But according to Marshall, California and the Forest Service have been using agreements similar to this one for over 55 years, and this marks the first time that the agency has demanded extra evidence for bills that have already been sent to the Forest Service.
“As you know, around 60% of forested land in California is owned by the federal government,” Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture. “Wildfires don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries, so a unified federal-state approach is the only way to properly protect lives and property.”