In a House Agriculture Committee hearing today, Representative Josh Harder secured Agriculture Secretary Vilsack's commitment to speeding up, providing more clarity, and helping improve the reimbursement process so Central Valley fire departments have the resources they need to keep their communities safe. With Sec. Vilsack's support, Rep. Harder will be introducing a bill to fix this issue in the coming weeks.
Rep. Harder recently hosted a roundtable with fire chiefs from across the Central Valley. In the meeting, local fire chiefs let him know that the federal government is currently taking over a year in some cases to process the reimbursements it owes to local departments, leaving them with fewer resources each fire season.
"This summer our fire chiefs let me know that the federal government was dragging their feet, taking more than a year to reimburse them for their incredible work keeping our communities safe," said Rep. Harder. "I promised our chiefs I'd go to Washington and deliver their message. Today, I delivered their message and secured Secretary Vilsack's commitment to speeding up the process. The Forest Service needs to reimburse our local departments in a matter of days, not months or years. I'm excited that we were able to secure the secretary's support our bill to get this situation fixed ASAP."
"I understand and appreciate we need to speed up the process," said Sec. Vilsack in response to Rep. Harder's question. "We're committed to doing that."
Video is available online here. See Rep. Harder's remarks as written below:
"Secretary, thank you for attending this important hearing and thanks again for visiting my District last year -- my constituents and I were pleased to discuss important local issues with you. Once again, I'd like to share with you what I am hearing back home in my District.
As you know, our local fire departments are supposed to get reimbursed for fighting fires on federal lands, but the more chiefs I talk to back home, the more worried I get that the federal government is hanging the folks on the ground out to dry.
A Fire Chief in Patterson told me he submitted for a fire reimbursement to the Forest Service and didn't receive any reimbursements until a year later. One year later. That means he's running a fire department, during the worst fire year on record, that's short the funds they need to pay their firefighters, operate their gear, and keep their department running because he's still waiting on a Forest Service check to show up. On top of that, some fire chiefs are telling me that the cost sharing agreements they've arranged with the federal government - as well as other parties- say they will be reimbursed one amount in one place and a completely different amount somewhere else.
For multiple jurisdiction fires like these, all parties enter a Cost Share Agreement that basically explains how they're going to split the cost of fighting the fire. This should be aligned with the 5 year Cooperative Agreements the Forest Service already has in place. But that's not always the case right now. Even by the Government Accountability Office's account, the Forest Service is struggling to provide clarity around who gets reimbursed what and most importantly: by when.
Can you explain to me what the Forest Service is doing to address the GAO's concerns on these agreements and how we can ensure our locals get more clarity on their reimbursements to help keep our communities safe? [ ]
I have a bill that I will be introducing soon fixing this very issue. It says that what one agreement says, the other has to be aligned. Can I count on your support for this bill?"