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Local fire districts may reduce wildfire duties amid state funding shortfall

More than 70 fire districts across the state, including the Green Valley Fire District, are still owed $12.4 million for wildland fires they fought on federal lands last year, causing many of them to re-think how they’ll respond to such fires this year.

Central Arizona Fire in Prescott Valley notified the Arizona Department of Forestry and Fire Management on Feb. 7 it will no longer respond to state and federal fires outside its jurisdiction until it is paid the $1.2 million it is owed.

The GVFD is owed just under $291,000 and whether it will respond to state and federal wildland fires will be determined on a case-by-case basis, said Chief Chuck Wunder.

“Of course we are going to support fires here in our own backyard, including state and federal jurisdictions near-by, but we will have to give serious consideration as to deploying outside of our immediate area until we see some sort of relief in the amount of monies we are owed,” Wunder said.

Bill Boyd, chief of staff with the Department of Forestry, said the problem is two-fold. First, the federal government fell behind on reimbursing states because of the exceptionally high number of wildland fires across the country.

Second, the State of Arizona has tapped out a revolving $10 million account set up in 2016 to pay local fire agencies that respond to fires on federal lands.

The way it’s supposed to work is this: Local fire agencies respond to federal wildland fires, the state pays the agencies out of the $10 million budget stabilization fund, and then the state asks for reimbursement from the federal government.

Since the state has tapped out the fund, it has to wait for reimbursements before it can pay the fire agencies and send out the next round of bills, Boyd said.

“It’s a slow process,” he said. “It’s a process that takes time and with the fire load that we’ve had it makes it that much more difficult.”

Under Arizona law, when fires occur on state land, the state must pay fire agencies within 30 days of receiving the bill – but the federal government doesn’t have any deadlines, Boyd said.

Boyd’s explanation doesn’t appease Wunder.

“We have a contract with the state, not with the feds,” he said. “We are a vendor to the state and we are owed monies. I don’t think it is right that local government, like fire districts, are carrying the burden for the state.”

Various fire organizations across the state, such as the Arizona Fire District Association, are trying to convince legislators to increase the stabilization fund to $20 million or $25 million. Wunder said that would be a step in the right direction.

John Flynn, executive director of the fire district association, declined to comment on the ongoing discussions with Gov. Doug Ducey’s staff and legislators, but said that if the cap isn’t raised, agencies “will have to carry a debt burden for a significant amount of time” while continuing to maintain operations.

“We have to maintain those trucks and payroll doesn’t stop,” he said.

A final decision on raising the cap may not be made until April, Flynn said.

“I hate to try and forecast forward, but we’re making every effort we can,” Flynn said. “We hope we can make legislators see this is essential and the right thing to do.”

The Green Valley News requested an interview with someone from the Governor’s office about the potential cap increase.

It resulted in a single emailed statement: “The Governor’s Office continues to work with the federal government to expedite local/State submission of and federal reimbursement on these claims, and reduce the likelihood of the State reaching the $10 million cap…” on the fund, it said.

GVFD has not had to delay equipment purchases or hiring firefighters, at least for now, Wunder said. Other districts aren’t so lucky.

Golder Ranch Fire District Chief Randy Karrer said his agency is owed almost $750,000.

“We’re starting to scale back on purchases of wildland firefighting equipment,” he said.

Like Wunder, Karrer said he will decide which federal fires they’ll help out with on a case-by-case basis.

Unless lives and property are at stake, he said he’d have to think long and hard about whether his agency will respond.

“I can’t justify going into debt further to go to forest land fires,” Karrer said. “It’s one of the most frustrating things I can imagine.”

Chris Anthis, who recently stepped down as Elephant Head Volunteer Fire Department chief, said his agency is owed $62,000 from an August 2018 fire in Redding, Calif.

“We’ve probably got a couple more months before it starts impacting us,” Anthis said.

If the bill goes unpaid, Anthis said he anticipates the district borrowing money to cover such things as fuel, insurance, vehicle repairs and utility bills.

“I’m used to it, but I don’t understand it,” Anthis said. “I know they’re working at it on the upper end, but it seems like they could do a better job.”

Because the department is so small and they need the revenue – no matter when it arrives – they have no choice but to continue responding to state and federal wildland fires, Anthis said.

Genaro Rivera, assistant chief with the Tubac Fire District, said his agency is owed more than $200,000. They submitted their last invoice in August and are having some trouble paying operational costs, he said.

“We’re kind of robbing Peter to pay Paul right now,” Rivera said.

The district has been unable to purchase new personal protective equipment, he said. Firefighters also haven’t been able to attend some training classes because they require fees and overnight expenses, Rivera said. The classes also result in overtime because other firefighters have to cover their shifts.

The department will still help out as much as possible when called upon, Rivera said.

“My feeling right now is that we can do it, but how long can we sustain it is the bigger question,” he said.

It’s not the first time the state has drained the stabilization fund.

Last July, Gov. Doug Ducey sent a letter to the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Interior on asking for their “attention and prompt action” after the state tapped out the fund and was left $3.2 million in arrears.

According to Ducey’s letter, the U.S. Forest Service owed $5.2 million to the state and the average bill was 106 days outstanding. The Bureau of Indian Affairs owed $902,000 and the average bill was 193 days old.

At that time, the GVFD was owed $102,000, the Tubac Fire District was owed $36,000 and the Arivaca Fire District was owed $2,000. All were eventually paid.

As of right now, representatives with the Helmet Peak Fire Department and the Arivaca Volunteer Fire Department said they aren’t owed any federal funds.

Boyd, from the Department of Forestry, said that prior to the budget stabilization fund being created in 2016, fire agencies sometimes waited more than a year to be reimbursed.

“Since we’ve had access to that fund, there’s been a vast improvement,” he said.

Boyd declined to comment on the efforts to increase the $10 million cap, but said he fully understands each agency’s need to watch their bottom line and deploy accordingly, or not.

Kim Smith | 547-9740

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