Embers blow in the wind as the Camp Fire burns a KFC restaurant on Nov. 8, 2018 in Paradise, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

Embers blow in the wind as the Camp Fire burns a KFC restaurant on Nov. 8, 2018 in Paradise, California. (Justin Sullivan/Getty Images/TNS)

Trump 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.

LOS ANGELES _ 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.

___

CaliforniaCalifornia wildfires

If you find our journalism valuable and relevant, please consider joining our Examiner membership program.
Find out more at www.sfexaminer.com/join/

Just Posted

San Francisco police investigated the scene of a police shooting near Varney Place and Third Street on May 7. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
SFPD shooting may prompt new body camera rules for plainclothes cops

Police chief says incident ‘should not have happened’

Governor Gavin Newsom speaks at a news conference about a $12 billion package bolstering the state’s response to the homelessness crisis at the Kearney Vista Apartments on May 11, 2021 in San Diego, California. (K.C. Alfred/The San Diego Union-Tribune/TNS)
Newsom promises sweeping change in California’s $267-billion budget

John Myers Los Angeles Times California would embark on the most ambitious… Continue reading

Despite the pandemic, San Francisco has ended the fiscal year with a budget surplus. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
Better than expected tax revenues leave city with $157.3M surplus for this year

As the fiscal year nears an end and Mayor London Breed prepares… Continue reading

Passengers board a BART train bound for the San Francisco Airport at Powell Street station. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
BART bumps up service restoration to August 30, offers fare discounts

Rail agency breaks pandemic ridership records, prepares to welcome more passengers

Ashley and Michelle Monterrosa hold a photo of their brother Sean Monterrosa, who was killed by a Vallejo police officer early Tuesday morning, as they are comforted at a memorial rally at the 24th Street Mission BART plaza on Friday, June 5, 2020. (Kevin N. Hume/S.F. Examiner)
State Department of Justice to investigate Sean Monterrosa shooting by Vallejo police

Attorney General Rob Bonta steps in after Solano County DA declines case

Most Read