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Feds: Most of $18M owed for California firefighting repaid

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LOS ANGELES (AP) — The U.S. Forest Service repaid most of the $18 million that a California official said it owed the state for fighting fires last year in national forests, a spokesman said Monday.

About $14 million was paid to local governments by the end of June and the Forest Service was trying to resolve differences over the remaining sum, which included administrative costs that may not be reimbursable, Paul Wade said.

California Emergency Services Director Mark Ghilarducci sent a sharply worded letter to the forest chief last week saying the federal government had lagged in repaying firefighters on time and that the state might stop responding to fires in national forests.

Wade said he was surprised by the letter because he was told officials met in late June to resolve the dispute.

"It's one of those moments when you say, 'Why isn't this being discussed over the phone?' " Wade said. "Maybe someone coughed and hit a button and sent something out they didn't mean to send out."

Ghilarducci said in his letter to Chief Thomas Tidwell that it was "appalling and absurd" the Forest Service had "blatantly ignored its financial responsibility to the men and women of California who have risked their lives fighting fires to protect federal land."

Kelly Huston, deputy director of emergency services, said Monday that Ghilarducci stood by the letter and felt he needed to directly address his concerns to the chief after the matter remained unresolved following numerous meetings and discussions.

Under longstanding mutual aid agreements, the feds and state coordinate and reimburse firefighters for work on federal lands. Nearly half the land in California is federally owned, and the greatest percentage of that is in the 18 national forests.

The federal government is supposed to repay local governments within two months, but more than 90 percent of payments from last year missed that deadline, Ghilarducci said. Two-thirds of payments in 2015 were late.

Char Miller, a professor of environmental analysis at Pomona College who has written extensively about the Forest Service, called the letter shocking and said it amounted to a "shot across the bow."

But Miller said he thought that a threat to not protect national forests would never be carried out by the state.

"There is no way it would do that given how interconnected the physical landscapes and property ownerships are," Miller said. "Resentment makes for bad policy."

Several wildfires are currently burning in national forests and surrounding lands. Huston pointed out that the state was continuing to aggressively respond to fires no matter where they are.

Wade said couldn't think of a reason the Forest Service wouldn't continue its agreement with the state.

"We love Calfire," he said. "The fire community is incredibly tight. We don't wear red or green uniforms. We wear yellow."

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