Council puts brakes on roadside chipping
At the driest and most dangerous time of the year for wildfire, the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County will suspend its free roadside chipping service until the state budget impasse is resolved, the group said Thursday.
Since August, two chipping contractors have been working without pay waiting for reimbursements from state and federal agencies, said board chair Dennis Cassella.
As many as 85 residents throughout the county have piles of brush and tree limbs cleared from around their homes waiting for a chipper, Cassella said.
The tinder dry piles could add fuel to wildfire and block roadways, said Tim Fike, chief of Nevada County Consolidated Fire.
“It’s the worst possible thing that could have happened,” Cassella said. “We’re not chipping piles that are now alongside roads and driveways.”
Fall is considered the most dangerous time for wildfire, because fuel moisture in grass and brush is at the lowest after drying all summer long. Humidity is also at its lowest as winds from the northwest begin to blow, Fike said.
“Fire spread is off the charts,” Fike said.
Starting next week, the council’s office manager’s hours will be reduced and volunteers will fill in until funding problems are resolved. Executive Director Joanne Drummond will continue to work full-time surviving on the council’s $40,000 fund balance.
County supervisors agreed to loan the council $10,000 at its last board meeting with the promise that the money be repaid if federal dollars return, said supervisor Hank Weston.
“We basically gave them an advance on federal funding,” Weston said.
For several years, a portion of the Fire Safe Council’s administration costs, including grant writing, were paid for by Title III funding from the Secure Rural Schools Act.
Congress has not agreed to extend the funding, giving no guarantees to schools, road and other county projects that depend on the money established in lieu of a decline in timber taxes years ago.
“If that funding stream goes away, that’s it. There’s no one to run the operation,” Weston said.
Last year, the council received $75,000 for administration and $20,000 for its senior assistance program and Scotch Broom Challenge with federal funding. This year it received nothing.
“If Title III isn’t renewed, the board will have to make a decision to lay me off. That’s up in the air,” Drummond said.
In talks with the county, the Fire Safe Council is waiting to see how the state budget will affect the county’s budget and if there will be any discretionary funding to use to offset a loss in federal dollars.
“If we don’t have money for grant writing, you don’t get money for the chipping program,” Drummond said.
Reimbursement requests made to the state’s fire safe council in April have not yet been received. No time frame has been identified for appropriations, the council said.
Last year, the council received more than $670,000 of state and federal grant money to create fire breaks, support its chipping program, clear Scotch broom, offer free defensible space clearing for seniors and disabled individuals in and around Grass Valley, Nevada City, North San Juan, Truckee and Washington.
Depending on the volume of work, the chipping program averages $20,000 to $25,000 of reimbursements to local contractors each month, Cassella said. The last payments to contractors were made in July.
During its last fiscal year, the Fire Safe Council spent $300,000 on its chipping program.
The council’s chipping program is designed to help homeowners achieve the state’s required 100 foot fire safe clearance around structures.
“There’s no doubt they’re vital to the public health of this county,” Weston said. “If you imagine all that goes away, how do you fill that void?”
To contact Staff Writer Laura Brown, e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org or call 477-4231.
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