With celebrities blaming Donald Trump for the recent wildfire outbreaks in California, it is worth remembering that the Obama administration threatened to cut off funding to fight California wildfires in 2016 over a billing dispute.
The Agriculture Department’s Office of Inspector General (IG) questioned $4.5 million in overcharging paid to the State of California for administrative services by local firefighting agencies within the state.
According to the IG, the 1955 U.S. Forrest Service agreement for the reimbursement of the cost of fighting forest fires on the 2.2 million acres federally owned and administered by the U.S. Bureau of Land Management — nearly half the land in California — specifically excluded certain local agency payments.
In a report titled “The Rising Cost of Fire Operations: Effects on the Forest Service’s NonFire Work,” the U.S. Forest Service stated that the percentage of its budget used to fight fires had jumped from 16 percent in 1995 to 52 percent in 2015, and was expected to exceed 67 percent in 2025. In 2015, firefighting siphoned away about $700 million that would have been spent on maintenance and fire prevention efforts.
The IG stated that with the U.S. Forest Service contracted to pay an average of $61 an acre to fight fires on grass or shrub land, $779 an acre for fire suppression on forested land, and $1,695 an acre in the wildland-urban interface, the California Forestry and Fire Protection Department did not divide costs and responsibilities on a fair basis.
With the U.S. Forest Service paying a record $1.2 billion for fire-fighting in 2016, the IG stated, “There was no assurance these [California] costs were reasonable and accurate.”
California’s Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci refused to negotiate and sent a letter to U.S. Forest Service Chief Thomas Tidwell on July 3, 2017 threatening that the State of California would end its contract and stop protecting national forests during blazes unless the Forest Service agreed to pay $18 million in disputed billing to local agencies.
According to Ghiarducci, “I cannot continue to support the deployment of resources to protect federal land that ultimately may bankrupt our local governments.”
California’s threat came shortly before a series of Western United States wildfires in September that pushed U.S. Forest Service fire-fighting costs over $2 billion. The California Wine Country fires in October and Southland fires in December seem likely to push U.S. Forest Service’s costs to over $3 billion.
Under the Obama administration, logging, mining, and oil drilling on public lands were drastically reduced, hurting the U.S. Forestry Service’s revenues and creating the perfect conditions for massive wildfires.
President Trump has promised to expand logging and drilling on public lands — while still protecting the environment — and has issued a series of executive orders and proclamations to shrink the Obama administration’s drastic expansion of national monuments to further increase the amount of federally-controlled land in the United States.
On Dec. 4, President Trump signed a proclamation to will shrink the size of the Bears Ears National Monument by 85 percent, or around 1.1 million acres; and to reduce the size of the Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument by another 800,000 acres, to just under half of its current size, according to fact sheets from the White House.