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Feds should shift firefighting burden in California, audit says

Tyron Demesa, a member of the Army National Guard, learns how to use a fire hose during a training exercise Jan. 14, 2016, in Sacramento, California. The U.S. Forest Service and Work for Warriors, an arm of the California National Guard, work together to train veterans and reservists.
Tyron Demesa, a member of the Army National Guard, learns how to use a fire hose during a training exercise Jan. 14, 2016, in Sacramento, California. The U.S. Forest Service and Work for Warriors, an arm of the California National Guard, work together to train veterans and reservists. rpench@sacbee.com

The U.S. Forest Service apparently overpaid for fighting some of California’s biggest wildland fires and was saddled with too many of the toughest areas to work in, federal investigators now say.

Citing expenditures that “may have been questionable and unreasonable,” the Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General questioned more than $4.5 million in administrative costs that the federal agency paid to local firefighting agencies within California.

“There was no assurance these costs were reasonable and accurate,” the investigators noted.

More broadly, investigators said an agreement with the state left the Forest Service shouldering an unequal share of areas where wildlands meet urban areas, the costliest to protect.

Forest Service needs to conduct an equivalency assessment of its fire protection responsibilities in California to ensure that fire protection costs are shared fairly among all parties.

Department of Agriculture Office of Inspector General

With the Forest Service spending about $1.2 billion annually on fire suppression, the questioned amounts in California may seem more a flicker than a flame. The overall fire-related costs, though, have expanded to cover more than half of the federal agency’s budget.

As a result, lawmakers and Obama administration officials alike are looking more closely at Forest Service funding, and individual dollars get closer scrutiny. The administration, allied with lawmakers including Reps. Jim Costa, D-Fresno, and David Valadao, R-Hanford, backs proposals that would treat high firefighting expenses as if they were emergencies.

“Congress must fix the fire budget to stop an ever-increasing amount of the operating budget going to fire suppression,” Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack said earlier this month.

The office of inspector general report, issued earlier this month, identified potential issues with Forest Service fire-protection agreements from fiscal years 2008 through 2011. The Forest Service negotiates these agreements with its state counterparts to delineate fire-protection responsibilities.

These compacts are complicated, but essentially they identify which agencies will handle given areas. Often they involve one entity agreeing to fight fires on land that belongs to another. California, for instance, has taken responsibility for protecting 2.2 million acres of federal Bureau of Land Management land.

But the investigators concluded that the agreements did not always divide the work equally. They noted that the agreements between the Forest Service and the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection “tended to result in the Forest Service receiving greater responsibility for land that is more difficult to protect . . . while state officials took responsibility for land that was comparatively inexpensive to protect.”

The Forest Service’s agreed-to coverage included residential areas near forests, which planners and firefighters call the wildland-urban interface, while the state manages more grasslands.

It costs an average of $61 an acre to fight fires on land covered by grass or shrubs, officials estimate. Fire suppression on forested land costs an average of $779 an acre, and the price jumps to $1,695 an acre in the wildland-urban interface.

Approximately 4,000 inmate firefighters are manning the front lines against California's raging wildfires. Inmates in Cal Fire's program are risking their lives to work 24-hour shifts to save drought-stricken California while earning less than fi

Exemplifying the greater wildland-urban interface challenges, the Butte fire in Amador and Calaveras counties last September destroyed 475 residences before it was brought under control after three weeks. State and local agencies led that particular fight.

The USDA Office of Inspector General wants such cost differences considered when state and federal officials negotiate their firefighting agreements.

“In California, the Forest Service region chose to focus primarily on ensuring that exchanged areas had equal acreage, rather than ensuring equality of firefighting costs assumed by each entity,” the report notes.

A California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection representative could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

Some changes have already occurred. The Forest Service has negotiated for the state to take back fire-suppression responsibility for 26,000 acres near Lake Tahoe and nearly 56,000 acres in the San Bernardino National Forest.

In response to the audit, Forest Service officials also agreed to review its firefighting agreements with California to ensure that state and federal agencies share “equitable” responsibilities.

The $4.5 million in administrative costs questioned by investigators involved Forest Service payments to local California fire agencies that assisted on five major wildland fires from 2008 to 2010. The audit does not name the agencies.

In response, the Forest Service agreed to set policies and procedures that will ensure such costs are “accurate and reasonable.”

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