Munsey Tells Congress Of County’s Costs In Fighting Fires On Federal Desert & Mountain Land

San Bernardino County Fire Chief Dan Munsey earlier this year testified before U.S. Congress’s Federal Lands Subcommittee. While the precise matter he testified with regard to did not expressly deal with federal reimbursement to local agencies or governments such as the County of San Bernardino and its fire department for services rendered to and on federal land, the forum did provide Munsey with an opportunity to make the point that local taxpayers are funding fire prevention and other safety-related services benefiting the federal government. Munsey also used the time he was in the nation’s capital to lobby some Congress members to consider reimbursing the county for its expenses in fighting wildfires on federal land.
Munsey had gone to Washington, D.C. at the request of Congresswoman Young Kim, who, with Congressman Doug LaMalfa, sponsored House Resolution 6994, also known as the ROUTES Act, which calls for the restoration and maintenance of federal trails, roads, campgrounds, and recreation sites that have been damaged by natural disasters.
The bill addresses emergency hazard tree removal in recreation sites so that those recreation sites can be reopened within two years following the end of the natural disaster that resulted in the land closure. The bill gives a categorical exclusion with regard to environmental rules that apply to projects that repair and restore access to recreation sites damaged by a natural disaster; as well as the removal of hazard trees for the purpose of public safety or improving access to a recreation site; mitigating and reducing soil erosion impacting a recreation site; and or restoring drainage patterns to support a recreation site.
In his remarks, Munsey took the position that restoring access to public lands would facilitate the fire department’s effort to respond to emergencies on federal lands within San Bernardino County. In his appearance on January 31 before the Congressional Agricultural Committee’s Subcommittee on Natural Resources, chaired by Chairman Tom Tiffany, Munsey testified or otherwise stated that there are “12,800,000,000 [twelve billion and 800 million] federal acres within San Bernardino County. We serve 20,000 square miles. Eighty percent of our land mass is federal. We respond with seven different federal agencies. We responded to 8,133 calls on an annual basis into federal land. This is $13 million of local funds that are spent on this expenditure. We are an all-hazard fire department. Your U.S. Forest Service and other fire departments by charter, unless there is a FEMA [Federal Emergency Management Agency] declaration, can only respond to wildfire. We found that out during our February [2023] storms that buried our communities in ten feet of snow as we asked for assistance. I want to thank Congresswoman Young Kim along with Congressman [Doug] LaMalfa for introducing this act.”
Munsey noted that “We’re fairly large. We responded to 196,000 all-hazard calls. Our men and women are amongst the hardest-working in the nation. They are often rated in the top ten busiest companies, but see, 196,000 calls are also 196,000 failures, because my job, my primary job, isn’t to respond to calls. My primary job is to prevent those calls. This act is important to recreation, certainly, but it’s more important to your local fire service who is responding after hours, who’s responding off-season into federal lands. If we cannot access fires, fires will continue to grow. If we can’t get in there and mitigate certain things like flood control channels, then secondary emergencies will occur.”
Munsey said, “We are known in San Bernardino County for having large destructive wildfires. Last year we had the largest fire in California with the York Fire. The Old and Grand Prix fire destroyed 993 homes and caused six civilian deaths. Then in 2020, the El Dorado Fire resulted in a federal firefighter fatality. Each one of these fires, like fires throughout our nation, has damaged roads, trails, campgrounds and other infrastructure. When I was on the Ranch Two Fire in the Angeles National Forest, I spent four days trying to open a road so I can access the firefighters’ edge. This year [i.e., last year, 2023] when we had our snowstorm, because the road was not maintained to repeated 9-1-1 calls, we were forced to send in helicopters with fuel to fuel back-up generators. We need the ability to get in there and fix these roads. If the federal government is not able to do that, we will certainly undertake that task to prevent emergencies. Debris flow’s a common example of secondary emergencies that we try to prevent. A great example occurred in Forest Falls, California within our communities after the El Dorado Fire. Our wildland crews removed 60 tons of debris from natural flood channels to prevent blockage. However, there still was several instants that resulted in flooding. In September 2022, the flooding unfortunately buried a house and a civilian. In August of 2023, a similar incident occurred in the nearby Seven Oaks community, and an elderly resident was swept away.”
Munsey emphasized that “It has been frustrating to watch fires get bigger and it has been frustrating to not allow local resources to respond to assist the federal government in preventing these emergencies. In San Bernardino County, we represent 66 communities. Eighty percent of our land mass is federal land. These communities are surrounded by your land areas. It is very important to us that we have access to these federal lands in order to effectively respond to and prevent emergencies.”
At the time that Munsey made his pitch to Congress on behalf of Congresswoman Kim’s bill, the March 5 vote of the county’s residents with regard to Measure W, which called for rescinding the fire tax imposed on the residents of the unincorporated county areas as well as the cities of Upland, San Bernardino, Twentynine Palms and Needles, was pending. Opponents of that tax, known as FP-5, maintained that the county having imposed that tax without a vote of the residents on whom it was imposed was unconstitutional. Measure W was brought forth by a coalition of government reformers known as the Red Brennan Group. The measure was opposed by the union for the county’s firefighters. Ultimately, Measure W failed by a margin of 38,023 of 87,392 total votes cast, or 43.51 percent, in favor of the measure to rescind the tax to or 49,369 or 56.49 percent to sustain the tax.
In the weeks and months prior to the March 5 vote, in his sojourn around the county, Munsey repeatedly made the point that the county fire department was the primary or indeed the only agency responding to fires on federal land.
-Mark Gutglueck

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