WASHINGTON -- Officials in California are crying foul over a Trump administration plan to slash firefighting assistance payments to the state, which could amount to millions of dollars in lost income for fire departments.
The U.S. Forest Service, in turn, is accusing the local fire departments in the state of over-billing the federal government as part of a federal-state partnership, the California Fire Assistance Agreement (CFAA), that was inked in 2015 and expires in 2020.
The disagreement between state and federal fire officials now threatens to upend negotiations to extend that agreement, which state Fire and Rescue Chief Brian Marshall said is essential to combat not just wildfires, but other natural disasters in California.
"Local government fire departments respond across jurisdictional boundaries every day," Marshall told McClatchy. "We cannot afford for this agreement to expire, that would have a devastating effect on the California wildfire system."
As California braces for what is expected to be another extreme fire year, the rising tensions have so alarmed the state's senior senator that she sent a letter this week calling for a truce.
"Around 60% of forested land in California is owned by the federal government. Wildfires don't stop at jurisdictional boundaries, so a unified federal-state approach is the only way to properly protect lives and property," Democratic Sen. Dianne Feinstein wrote in a May 14 letter to Agriculture Secretary Sonny Perdue and U.S. Forest Service Chief Vicky Christensen.
"Given that California is facing another year of significant wildfire risk, I ask that you delay implementation of any recommended reimbursement changes and that you work with the State to address any issues as part of the renegotiation of the existing CFAA," she continued.
The Forest Service insists it is moving ahead with its new demands after completing an of the fire assistance agreement in January.
"The Forest Service is ultimately accountable to American taxpayers and has the responsibility to practice due diligence in review of all fire-related claims made by local governments," the agency said in a statement to McClatchy. "The audit found several areas where the CFAA is not being managed to ensure mutual benefit between the Forest Service and the State of California."
Specifically, the Forest Service alleges that the state submitted inaccurate invoices in his request for federal reimbursement, "resulting in potential overpayments."