Education and outreach: As Ponderosa project nears completion, Fire Safe CEO discusses role filled by the nonprofit
The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County has a unique and expanding role in the community, its executive director says.
Additionally, some of its projects are on track for an on-time, or early, finish.
Jamie Jones, who has served since 2018 as the council’s executive director and CEO, said the council is on track to complete the Ponderosa West Grass Valley Defense Zone project well before the project’s previous target date.
In April, Jones said that the council’s goal was to have cleared 1,200 acres of potential wildfire fuel from Grass Valley properties by March 2022. On Wednesday, Jones said that 1,000 acres have now been cleared, and the council still expects to easily reach the 1,200 goal before next March.
However, Jones said progress on the first phase of the Ponderosa project has slowed in recent months, as some homeowners are still reluctant to allow their properties to be treated for fuel abatement.
“Ponderosa is certainly not going at the same speed as when we started,” Jones added. “Some of that has to do with dwindling owner participation, or folks just not responding when we reach out asking if they will participate. You also have new homeowners for some of these properties who have arrived and who may not engage with the project.”
While just under 300 acres must still be cleared to reach the goal of 1,200, Jones optimistically noted that 150 of those acres are now scheduled to be cleared. Work on these properties has not officially started, though the owners of these lands have already given permission to have their properties cleared.
Regardless of some of the challenges that have emerged, Jones said that Ponderosa Phase One would definitively be completed well before March.
In another milestone, the council recently completed $800,000 worth of prescribed burns on land governed by the United States Forest Service, Jones added. The council had previously asked for and received the $800,000 in funding for this project through grants from the Sierra Nevada Conservancy Department, as well as the National Fish and Wildlife Foundation.
While sharing these updates, Jones said that she and the other directors of the nonprofit are committed to educating new community members about the unique role the council plays as one of Nevada County’s foremost entities when it comes to fire safety.
“There are new people moving here all the time who are new to the area and don’t know about the unique responsibility here to protecting the urban-wildlife interface, so there’s a need to educate and outreach to these folks, which we can provide,” Jones said.
One of over 100 fire safe councils in California, the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County was founded in 1988 as an informal community group concerned about the risks posed by wildfires in the aftermath of the 49er fire in 1988.
The organization has dramatically expanded in size and scope of service in recent years, going from an organization with only three full-time employees to now employing around 30 full-time staff, Jones said. The council’s funding has also expanded recently, with funding going from several hundred thousand dollars to $2 million to $3 million annually, according to Council Director Don Thane.
Jones said the council could not complete any of its fire safety projects without ongoing collaboration with a host of partner agencies. The council partners closely with Nevada County’s Office of Emergency Services, Cal Fire, Sierra Nevada Conservancy, and the U.S. Forestry Service — to name a few.
The council’s projects include not just large-scale fuel abatement efforts such as the Ponderosa project, but also cover a range of regularly available fire safety services. One such service highlighted by Jones was the organization’s chipping program that allows property owners to dispose of flammable wooden materials, simply by allowing drive-by crews to come by their land to collect the materials.
The nonprofit also offers a variety of other regular services, including a defensible space clearing program aimed at clearing lands of hazardous vegetation, as well as a free green waste disposal service offered in collaboration with the Office of Emergency Services.
These services have become extremely popular throughout the county in recent years as the risk of regional fires has grown, and the council is dedicated to removing barriers such as cost and education that often prevent people from protecting their land from wildfires, Jones said.
“I would say the top three categories of service that we’re about are education, outreach, and these fuel reduction projects,” Jones said of the council’s mission. “A lot of people just don’t even know where to start when it comes to fire safety and that’s where the education comes in, so this organization really is important to our local homeowners.”
While the organization’s projects would not be completed without the assistance of its numerous partner agencies, the nonprofit likewise could not function at all without an extensive level of state, local, and private funding. The council, like many similarly structured nonprofits, regularly applies for grants to fund specific projects. Some of the agencies that provide grants to the council include Cal Fire, the California Fire Safe Council, the California Fire Foundation, and Nevada County.
Internally, the organization functions primarily through its 11-person Board of Directors (including Jones herself) who meet once a month to discuss ongoing projects as well as the fire safety needs of the county. Major decisions must be approved by a majority vote of the directors, Thane said.
Jones said the unique role filled by the council is one that couldn’t be replicated by the Office of Emergency Services or another county agency. On a large scale, Jones talked about how the council provides a level of education and outreach in the community when it comes to fire safety that the county government lacks the resources to do on its own.
“We essentially have the role of wildfire coordinator,” Jones said. “We build capacity where there’s gaps. The county doesn’t have the capacity to do that kind of messaging or outreach … with what we do, OES can focus on emergency management and response, county fire services can focus on suppression … we can focus on large-scale fuel reduction projects like Ponderosa.”
In addition to completing the Ponderosa project by early next year, the council is also seeking grant funding from state and local agencies for two similar fuel abatement projects: a Phase 2 of the Ponderosa Project that would extend roughly 1,200 acres northward from the program’s first phase, and a separate initiative that is being called the South Yuba Rim project, which Jones said could potentially cover even more acreage than the current Ponderosa project.
The council still has not secured enough in grants to entirely fund either Ponderosa Phase 2 or the South Yuba Rim initiative, and is hoping to receive approval for grant applications for these projects by late August, Jones said.
Stephen Wyer is a staff writer with The Union. He can be reached at email@example.com
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