California agencies fought fires on federal land. Now Trump won’t pay in full

Vivian Ho in San Francisco


As California prepares to enter wildfire season, the Trump administration is holding back millions of dollars in requested reimbursement to local fire agencies for battling wildfires on federal lands last year.

After the most destructive and expensive season on record, California issued a $72m reimbursement request for local firefighting efforts on federal lands. Rather than reimburse the local agencies in full, the US Forest Service audited the agreement that made this exchange possible and is now withholding $9m.

“A local fire department doesn’t budget to go help the US Forest Service,” said Brian Marshall, fire chief for the state office of emergency services. “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.”

Related: Last year's wildfires were the most expensive in California history

According to the Forest Service, the audit was prompted by a 2017 letter from the director of the state office of emergency services that criticized the forest service’s reimbursement practices.

In a statement, the Forest Service claimed the money was being withheld because the agency did not receive “documentation that substantiate[s] actual expenses”. “Our intentions are to fully reimburse the state of California for all of their actual expenses,” the forest service said.

But California and the Forest Service had been operating under agreements like this since 1961, Marshall said, and this was the first time the Forest Service had required extra documentation for bills that had already been submitted.

Marshall raised concern over the timing of the spat: “We’re going back to last summer when we’re ready to burn right now.”

Meanwhile, the state and the Forest Service are in the midst of renegotiating their agreement. Senator Dianne Feinstein wrote to both the Forest Service and the Department of Agriculture earlier this month, asking them to work with the governor’s office and to “delay implementation of any recommended actions from the recently completed internal audit”.

“As you know, around 60% of forested land in California is owned by the federal government,” Feinstein wrote. “Wildfires don’t stop at jurisdictional boundaries, so a unified federal-state approach is the only way to properly protect lives and property.”

The Forest Service’s audit comes after Donald Trump repeatedly blamed California’s forest management for the wildfires that killed dozens last year. “Billions of dollars are given each year, with so many lives lost, all because of gross mismanagement of the forests,” he tweeted. “Remedy now, or no more Fed payments!”

Marshall believes the reimbursement feud is “going to have a chilling effect on the way we fight fires in California”.

“If we continue to have fire seasons like we’ve seen in the past couple of years, with whole communities wiped out, we can’t afford to have these kinds of issues impact the California wildland firefighting program,” Marshall said.