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The Federal Government Won't Pay Back California's Firefighting Costs. What Happens When the Next Fire Hits?

California says it's owed $9.3 million for fighting fires on federal lands. The Forest Service says the state is overbilling.
President Donald Trump speaks with Gavin Newson, who was lieutenant governor of California at the time, as they view damage from the Camp fire in Paradise, California, on November 17th, 2018.

President Donald Trump speaks with Gavin Newson, who was lieutenant governor of California at the time, as they view damage from the Camp fire in Paradise, California, on November 17th, 2018.

While President Donald Trump has threatened for months to cut federal funding for fighting California's wildfires, another dispute has been simmering beneath the surface: According to reports this week from the Sacramento Bee and the Los Angeles Times, the United States Forest Service is refusing to reimburse California's local fire departments for the cost of fighting fires on federal land last year.

For nearly 60 years, local departments in the state have relied on some assistance from the federal government, now guaranteed in a 2015 cost-sharing plan called the California Fire Assistance Agreement. Set to expire in 2020, this agreement faces challenges under the Trump administration, which has previously threatened to cut off fire assistance in what many believe is an overtly political move.

After the Governor's Office of Emergency Services (Cal OES) asked again for reimbursement, representatives from the Forest Service conducted an audit and accused the state of overbilling. It's now withholding $9.3 million of the $72 million California requested last year. Officials warn the financial loss could drastically impair firefighting efforts in the state—just as the typical fire season is about to begin.

Here are the facts fueling this argument.

California's Local Fire Agencies Are Strapped for Cash

According to officials, local fire departments will face significant challenges if the Forest Service suspends the agreement. Restricting what expenses can be reimbursed "would be cumbersome and would severely impact California's ability to respond to fires," Cal OES Fire Chief Brian Marshall wrote in a letter to the agency, first reported by the Bee.

Marshall added that the change would directly impact small departments that can't take the financial hit, as well as those that rely on volunteers. Volunteer firefighters can be reimbursed for their service—but the agencies themselves must be reimbursed first. In California, 30 percent of fire departments are volunteer, and another 29 percent are mostly volunteer, according to the National Fire Department Registry. Already, their ranks are dwindling as the state's fires worsen, creating a crisis for cash-strapped local agencies.

Many of the State's Most Destructive Fires Have Taken Place on Federal Land

Although Trump has portrayed California's fire management as a drain on the federal government, it's hardly just a state problem. The Forest Service manages about 60 percent of forested land in California. As climate change and development have worsened this crisis, much of this land has burned: In 2018, a Redding Record Searchlight investigation of California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection records found that six of the state's 16 most destructive wildfires in the past 25 years occurred on federal lands.

Marshall and California Senator Dianne Feinstein have both cited this as a reason to keep cost-sharing payments intact. "Wildfires don't stop at jurisdictional boundaries, so a unified federal-state approach is the only way to properly protect lives and property," Feinstein wrote in a letter to the Forest Service last week. "Given that California is facing another year of significant wildfire risk, I ask that you delay implementation of any recommended reimbursement changes from the audit."

Climate Change Has Set a New Precedent

Although experts have long debated how to fund increasingly expensive fire prevention efforts, assistance from the federal government is nothing new. The amount the Forest Service and the Department of the Interior spend protecting federal lands each year has nearly doubled since 2001.

During the same period, more of the Forest Services' resources also went to state and volunteer fire assistance, according to a report from the Congressional Research Service. California officials say this help is much needed—especially because last year's fire season never really ended.