White House backs off threat to au­dit Cal­i­for­nia wild­fire fight­ing agree­ment

Lodi News-Sentinel - - SPORTS - By Joseph Serna

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.

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