California threatens to withhold aid in fires on federal land over $18M owed

It's something that happens all the time: state firefighters helping out on fires burning on federal land, and federal firefighters helping out on fires burning on state land.

But what you don't see is the battle over who actually pays the bill.

"While the hoses are being rolled out, and the fire trucks are racing in, and the airplanes are going on the attack, behind the scenes, all of the accountants are saying, 'Who's paying for what?'" said Professor Char Miller from Pomona College in Claremont.

Miller said he's not surprised by a letter written by the director of the California Office of Emergency Services to the head of the U.S. Forest Service.

According to the letter, the federal government still hasn't paid an $18 million bill for firefighting efforts last year.

"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... This is appalling and absurd," the letter reads in part.

The letter also said that unless the feds pay up, the state cannot guarantee they'll help out on federal fires in the future. It's that part of the letter that surprises Miller.

"To say, 'Well if there's a fire that starts on state property and leaps onto federal property, maybe we won't fight it,' they never do that... they're always going to fight it, so why make the claim, if you know it's not true."

"Cal Fire is committed to protecting the lives, property and natural resources across California and we will continue to respond to local, state and federal fires as we always have," said the agency in a statement.

According to the letter, the federal government doesn't think volunteer firefighters should be paid for full-time work.

As of Monday, the Forest Service said that of the $18 million in dispute, $14 million has been paid back and they're still negotiating over the rest.
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