Nevada County fire-protection agency funds burning out
A Nevada County fire-safety nonprofit is looking at stamping out its operations as one of its main funding sources dries up — funds originally generated by the timber industry.
“It is an important source of funding. If we can’t make that up, our board of directors has voted to not operate the (Fire Safe Council of Nevada County),” said its executive director, Joanne Drummond.
“With this budget we have, next year may be the year we bow out,” Drummond said. “This is something we’ve been trying to resolve for four years.”
Formed in 1998 by residents concerned about the unrelenting danger of catastrophic wildfire in Nevada County and its surrounding forestland, the Fire Safe Council works proactively to reduce the risk of life and property loss to such a blaze.
The nonprofit provides on-site fire hazard evaluations and debris chipping as incentives to shore up flammable tree limbs, as well as helps dispose of green waste; clears defensible spaces of fire fuels, including Scotch Broom, from homes, trails and other spaces; and also facilitates a number of other Firewise services.
“They have been a great benefit in the community,” said Marty Coleman-Hunt, executive director of the Bear Yuba Land Trust, a land preservation organization.
“What they have done is taken the leadership on, having a discussion with the community about neighborhoods being fire safe. If they weren’t doing it, who would be?”
Since its inception, the Fire Safe Council relied heavily on what has become the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Title III funds, which were primarily generated by timber sales originally, Drummond said.
Beginning in the late 1980s, timber sale receipts began a precipitous decline that continued into the 1990s, noted Mark Ray, under secretary of Natural Resources and Environment during a February 2005 testimony.
The decline impacted rural communities in the West, particularly communities in Washington, Oregon, Northern California and Idaho, Ray said.
As national forest revenues were $557 million in 1998 — only 36 percent of the $1.53 billion peak revenues in 1989 — payments to many states declined by an average of 70 percent from 1986 through 1998.
“In kind of a roundabout way, the change of the societal acceptance of active resource management had the unintended consequence of taking those resources away from local entities,” Drummond said.
With timber revenue plummeting, Congress adopted the Secure Rural Schools and Community Self-Determination Act in October 2000 to offset decreased revenue available to states. Title III of the new act allocated funds to search, rescue and emergency services on federal lands.
“About five years ago, that act was defunded,” Drummond said, noting that an incremental reduction of 25 percent per year was implemented for what was supposed to be a four-year tapering off. However, even that funding has been in limbo, as Congress has passed continuing resolutions instead of budgets.
In October, Congress passed a one year reauthorization of the Secure Rural Schools act as part of the Helium Stewardship Act.
“If this trend continues, maybe we limp along another year,” Drummond said.
When Drummond came to the Fire Council seven years ago, the district had an overall budget of approximately $700,000. Its budget this year is slightly more than $300,000, with all but $8,000 expended and 4 percent of the budget spent on administrative costs.
In June, the council’s board of directors approved the possibility of closure when it adopted its budget for the current fiscal year.
“Council has been trying to find ways to make up that funding, but that is a lot of money,” Drummond said. “We’ve been doing everything, including standing on the streets with helmets begging for money.”
If the council can’t attract between at least $30,000, and more comfortably $70,000, Drummond said the agency will have to discontinue programs, lay off staff and possibly convert into an all-volunteer organization.
“We’ve been dipping into our reserves,” Drummond said. “The rubber meets the road at some point.”
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