State: We’ll let the forest fires burn

The California Office of Emergency Services threatens to rescind fire protection for federal land if past debts and local volunteer firefighters remain unpaid. 

The head of the California agency that is supposed to step in during the state’s worst disasters has expressed the possibility of ceasing services on federal lands if the federal government doesn’t pay its bills.

California Office of Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci said that the United States Forest Service has snubbed local government agencies’ claims for $18 million for fighting fires on federal lands last year, and he is threating to halt the protection of federal lands if the issue isn’t handled.

“I cannot continue to support the deployment of resources to protect federal land that ultimately may bankrupt our local governments,” Ghilarducci said in a letter sent Monday to Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell.

The amount that is still owned is being disputed by members of the USFS

Forest Service Public Affairs Specialist Paul Wade said that as of June 30, the USFS has already paid $14 million, with only $4 million left to be paid to local governments.

Wade said that “differences in agreements” are what is holding up the payment of any lingering debts.

Wade mentioned indirect cost rates and administration costs as being a point of disagreement between the two agencies.

Wade said that Tidwell is formulating a letter in response to Ghilarducci.

“Ultimately, our first responsibility is to public safety and to the lands and making sure that everyone is safe,” Wade said.

“This is something that we want to resolve,” he said.

In the letter, Ghilarducci calls on the USFS to uphold the regulations of the California Fire Assistance Agreement (CFFA), agreed to in 1961, which outlines how federal reimbursements are made to local and state fire agencies.

Cal OES claims that the USFS has failed to comply with the agreement, most notably, by failing to reimburse local volunteer firefighters under the shield of a piece of legislation passed in 1955.

The letter also claims that the Forest Service refuses to pay unemployment insurance rates to local government fire agencies consistent with the terms of the CFAA and a failure to follow the dispute resolution process outlined in the agreement.

“Because the USFS appears to be committed to finding a way to not pay for the firefighting services that have been rendered rather than complying with the CFAA, this has caused a severe financial hardship to our local governments,” the letter reads.

Cal OES holds that the USFS is “suddenly’ adopting the Reciprocal Fire Protection Act of 1955 as evidence that the federal government does not have to pay for the costs for volunteer firefighters.

Volunteer firefighters make up one-third of California’s firefighting force, according to Cal OES.

“For them to be part of this effort is absolutely critical,” said Wade. “It doesn’t matter what it is, when they all come together, we learn from each other.”

The law only allows for reimbursement of costs and expenses “actually incurred,” he said.

“The USFS is fully committed to resolution of financial claims made by government agencies,” said Wade.

Ghilarducci’s letter states that 92 percent of reimbursements from USFS owed to local governments did not meet the 60 calendar-day timeframe agreed to in 2016, up 29 percent from 2015.

“If you are unwilling to pay for services that are rendered by the men and women of California who risk their lives protecting federal land, we cannot guarantee that they will respond to the USFS call for assistance in the future,” Ghilarducci said.

The move would be significant. Half of the land in California is federally owned with a large chunk of that land residing in the foothills in counties like hilly Calaveras, Tuolumne and Amador. During a typical wildfire, local, state and federal resources work in conjunction to bring fires under control and to coordinate emergency efforts.

In May 2016, then Cal OES Chief Deputy Director Nancy Ward and USFS Deputy Regional Forester Jeanne Wade met with the CFAA Committee to express a desire to find a way to meet the conditions of the agreement.

A month later, according to Wade, USFS met with Cal OES to handle any continuing pay issues.

Likewise, members of Cal OES, Cal Fire and local representatives have attempted to address the issue.

“The USFS is fully committed to resolution of financial claims made by government agencies,” said Paul Wade.

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