July 31, 2023

New legislation looks to ensure timely reimbursement for local fire departments

Andy Lyon/USDA Forest Service

Fire approaches Highway 434 at Christmas Tree Canyon as firefighters work to keep the fire west of the road.

When crews battle wildfires on public lands such as national forests, the fire departments often have agreements with the federal government intended to reimburse their expenses. But this often does not occur in a timely manner.

U.S. Sen. Ben Ray Luján, D-New Mexico, introduced legislation last week to change that.

“It’s our local firefighters that are always on the frontline,” he said in an interview with NM Political Report.

When the departments aren’t reimbursed in a timely manner or if the reimbursements are delayed, it can harm their budgets and make it harder for them to fight future fires.

The legislation does three main things: establishes standard operating procedures for reimbursement agreements, ensures that these agreements are reviewed and modified when necessary and expedites reimbursement when standard operating procedures are followed.

Luján said establishing these policies would ensure that “fire departments are not going to be left without being able to be reimbursed for the work they did and keeping us all safe.”

The legislation has been introduced in the past, but has not made it to the president’s desk.

Luján’s reintroduction comes on the back of news from the U.S. Forest Service indicating that federal prescribed burning initiatives started the Cerro Pelado Fire that charred more than 45,000 acres last year in northern New Mexico.

That, Luján said, is unacceptable.

The Cerro Pelado Fire is one of three major wildfires that burned last year in New Mexico as a result of federal prescribed burning initiatives.

Luján said when the Forest Service took responsibility for the Hermits Peak Fire, officials said a low percentage of prescribed burns grow out of control and become wildfires.

But, with the federal agency taking responsibility for the Cerro Pelado Fire, that makes three New Mexico wildfires in 2022 started by Forest Service actions.

Two of those fires—the Cerro Pelado and the Calf Canyon fires—began because winter burning of debris piles left smoldering ash pits that reignited in the spring winds. The Calf Canyon Fire merged with the Hermits Peak Fire, becoming the largest wildfire in state history.

Luján said work must be done to make impacted communities “as whole as possible.”

In regards to the fire departments that responded to the blazes, Luján said it is important that they are reimbursed for those expenses quickly.

He said there needs to be ironclad agreements that, as long as the fire department follows standard operating procedures, it will receive reimbursement and that the claims will be reviewed in a timely manner.

“When local fire departments are not reimbursed, it jeopardizes their assignments, work, mission,” he said.

He said the efforts to combat fires on public lands can drain a fire department’s financial resources and, if the reimbursement does not come, “that dramatically reduces their budgets and leaves them more exposed when it comes to saving people in the community.”

Without enough money in the budget, the departments may struggle to purchase necessary equipment or pay for adequate staffing.

This can be particularly challenging as climate change is contributing to more intense and frequent wildfires. 

Because of the intensifying wildfires, the need for firefighters has reached an all-time high and the sponsors hope the bill will help address the shortage of firefighters.

U.S. Representative Josh Harder, D-California, is sponsoring the legislation on the House side. 

“Every day, our local firefighters put everything on the line to keep us safe. Wildfires are only getting bigger and burning longer year after year, and it often falls on our departments to fight these fires on federal lands,” Harder said in a press release. “The federal government is responsible for reimbursing our local fire departments for their service, and they shouldn’t be skipping out on the bill. One of the fire departments in my district in California recently responded to a wildfire on federal land while they’re still waiting to be reimbursed for a fire they responded to over a year ago. Local fire departments should be fully and quickly compensated for their work to keep us safe.”