Federal Firefighters Get Burned as Funds Are Wasted
Policy + Politics

Federal Firefighters Get Burned as Funds Are Wasted

Reuters/Max Whittaker

Over the last two years, as wildfires burned through the western states of California, Oregon and Washington destroying hundreds of homes and killing dozens of firefighters, few Americans knew that the medical services available to the firefighters were lacking, or that many are suffering from PTSD.

Until this year, there was no full-time doctor available, according to a report in USA Today. Despite increasing danger from drought caused by global warming, the Bureau of Land Management’s budget has been shrinking over the years, and the agencies responding to the disaster have repeatedly urged Congress for more federal funding.

The government’s primary firefighting account – the federal fire suppression fund – has long been in danger of running dry. In August, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack reiterated the urgency and asked Congress to increase the agency’s overall budget. “We need congressional action . . . to provide stability and security and to enable us to do a better job of restoring and making our forests more resilient,” Vilsack said.

Related: More Federal Workers Abusing Government Credit Cards

Yet the agency in charge of that fund is apparently not spending the money it has very wisely. A new Inspector General report found that lax oversight and mismanagement of the fund by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) had resulted in millions of wasted tax dollars – money the firefighters have been begging for.

“In the face of these large-scale challenges, BLM’s wildland fire program has demonstrated vulnerabilities to misuse of funds and potential fraud due to inadequate internal controls and inconsistent implementation of existing controls,” the report said. “These issues undermine BLM’s ability to, among other things, determine the real cost of fire suppression, account for programmatic purchases, and validate its payroll.”

Auditors found that in several instances, firefighters got paid to fight fires that never actually existed. In another, 26 firefighters had been paid to put out a single fire that had engulfed a tree.

The auditors said the agency not only failed to manage how employees’ were paid, it also did not provide oversight of the employees’ use of federal charge cards – with many using the federal funds to buy personal gift cards.

Related: Government Workers Bill Taxpayers $2M in Personal Expenses

In 2011 alone, employees spent nearly $800,000 from the suppression fund on gift cards. In one case, a single employee charged $70,000 worth of personal gift cards with her government purchase card, according to The Washington Examiner.

The agency still hasn’t improved its oversight over its employee charge cards, according to the auditors who said they were unable to project the full extent of the improper charges. “BLM needs to conduct normal operations within the constraints of its budget like any other agency,” the IG said.

The Bureau of Land Management, of course, is not the only agency to have oversight problems with federal charge cards. Just last week, the inspector general at the cash-strapped Department of Transportation reported that agency employees charged more than $2 million in unauthorized travel expenses in 2012 alone. In that same period, some DOT workers used their credit cards to collect $183,000 in cash advances while not on government trips. 

The DOT, just like the BLM, has the tools to review and detect this kind of abuse, but agency officials have not used them, leading hundreds of thousands of tax dollars out the door. 

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