Capitol Alert

Trump administration still holding on to $9 million owed to California fire departments

California still has not heard from the Trump administration about $9 million the state believes local fire departments are owed for work fighting wildfires last year, according to the Office of Emergency Services.

House Speaker Nancy Pelosi sent a letter to U.S. Secretary of Agriculture Sonny Perdue on Tuesday demanding that the administration “finally settle the outstanding debts with the state” and reopen negotiations on a firefighting agreement.

Pelosi’s letter underscores a similar letter that Sen. Dianne Feinstein sent to the Trump administration in May.

California’s state and local governments are at odds with the Trump administration over changes the federal government wants to make in a wildfire compact that’s meant to coordinate government resources in emergencies.

Pelosi in her letter changed that the Trump administration “unilaterally imposed new procedures, unreasonable documentation requirements and reduced reimbursements.”

Brian Marshall, fire and rescue chief for Cal OES, said the additional documentation was not included in an original agreement between the two agencies. He worries firefighters won’t respond to future wildfires if they don’t immediately get the money they are owed.

“If a fire department’s not getting paid, they’re not going to provide the service,” Marshall said.

State firefighters billed the federal government $72 million for costs incurred from the 2018 fire season. In May, California said $9.3 million had yet to be distributed.

“Missed paychecks, delayed benefits and continued uncertainty for California’s state agencies, firefighters, first responders and local fire departments is inexcusable,” Pelosi wrote.

The dispute between California and the Trump administration over wildfire reimbursement is the latest issue in a long-running feud.

In January, President Donald Trump threatened to pull federal funding for disaster recovery costs.

“Billions of dollars are sent to the State of California for Forest fires that, with proper Forest Management, would never happen,” Trump tweeted. “Unless they get their act together, which is unlikely, I have ordered FEMA to send no more money. It is a disgraceful situation in lives & money!”

The tweet sparked backlash from Republicans and Democrats in the state. Gov. Gavin Newsom responded on Twitter, saying, “Disasters and recovery are no time for politics. I’m already taking action to modernize and manage our forests and emergency responses. The people of CA — folks in Paradise — should not be victims to partisan bickering.”

While the Federal Emergency Management Agency has continue to offer support to 2018 wildfire victims, the slow pace of reimbursement concerns Marshall.

Marshall said the state is working to renegotiate a new California Fire Assistance Agreement. The current agreement was written in 2015 and is set to expire at the end of the year.

“We want the public to know that we want to resolve this, and we want a new agreement that takes effect Jan. 1, 2020,” Marshall said.

The U.S. Forest Service did not respond to a request for comment.

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Bryan Anderson is a political reporter for The Bee. He covers the California Legislature and reports on wildfires and transportation. He also hosts The Bee’s “California Nation” podcast.
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