Seasonal firefighters work together Thursday to clear a fire break during a training exercise near Jackson.

State audit hits Cal Fire hidden funds

Published: Friday, Aug. 30, 2013 - 12:00 am | Page 4A
Last Modified: Friday, Sep. 6, 2013 - 5:42 pm

For years, California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection officials collected nearly $100 million from legal settlements, but didn't track all spending and socked some of it away in an off-the-books training fund, according to a state audit released Wednesday.

Department of Finance auditors concluded that Cal Fire didn't have the authority to create the Wildland Fire Investigation Training and Equipment Fund in 2005. They also found the Cal Fire Civil Cost Recovery Program, which billed and sued responsible parties for firefighting costs to the tune of $93 million over eight years, cannot accurately account for the number of cases it's handling or civil liability payments being pursued.

"Management is unaware of the case disposition until checks are received," according to the audit report. "There was no reconciliation process taking place to ensure expected recoveries were deposited into the Fund."

Managing those cases has been handled by the state's 21 fire units and two regional offices, which also collect settlement monies, but far-flung bureaucracy hasn't kept Cal Fire accountants or its Sacramento headquarters informed, according to the audit.

In a written response to the audit, Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott said his department is working on centralizing reporting and tracking the money for that program.

Reporting was virtually nonexistent for the training and equipment fund.

It took in a little more than $3.6 million over eight years and paid out nearly $2.7 million for everything from $33,000 for a conference at a Pismo Beach resort to 400 Canon PowerShot digital cameras and a dozen Tuff Shed storage units.

But Cal Fire didn't keep track of the inventory, according to the audit.

It didn't even claim ownership, because management didn't believe the money that purchased the goods met the legal definition of state money.

Cal Fire closed the training fund and moved $813,000 it contained to a legitimate account after media reports earlier this year revealed its existence.

Call Jon Ortiz, Bee Capitol Bureau, (916) 321-1043.

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