Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman & Pat Leach: What’s next for Fire Safe Council in Nevada County?
Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman
The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County has played a vital role in preparing communities to be prepared for wildfires, successfully obtaining millions of dollars in grants to reduce hazardous fuels and make evacuation routes safer, and generally serving as a community “hub” for information and help on fire safety from county, state and federal sources.
Each year, the amount of grants has increased.
For the past 12 years, Joanne Drummond, the executive director, led and built this successful program, with innovative initiatives such as the Scotch Broom Challenge, the chipping program, and a program for low-income seniors and disabled to get help clearing defensible space. She’s garnered the support of many hundreds of volunteers each year and over a thousand overall.
Drummond also has received numerous prestigious national, state, and local awards, one of them for helping neighborhoods get certified as Firewise Communities. Through her efforts, Nevada County has more Firewise Communities than any other in California, and possibly the nation. Despite these accomplishments, the Fire Safe Council Board of Directors voted to not renew her contract at the April 22 meeting.
Many are asking, what happens next?
Here are some ideas for moving forward in a positive way to continue the success of the Fire Safe Council: (1) the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has a clearly articulated template for enabling Fire Safe Councils, governments and fire agencies to work together effectively in a collaborative way; (2) examples of best practices for boards of directors, including bylaws and operations, are readily available; (3) our excellent local Center for Nonprofit Leadership is available to help.
It’s important to acknowledge how we got here and how that informs our path forward, not only to preserve the good work of the Fire Safe Council but also adapt to ever-growing demands of this community. The council is in a critical time of growth and has some growing pains because of its success. Now is the time to clearly outline how to address this growth with a business plan, including a deliberative analysis of the work needs, the income sources available, and the levels of expertise needed to accomplish it. This is not simple with an organization that is “soft funded” (i.e., relies upon grants).
Office staffing needs must be analyzed, including type of knowledge and level of expertise required to support the often-technical programs. For example, Joanne Drummond has recommended having a registered professional forester and/or a grant manager at board meetings. These analyses do not need to take a lot of time nor be expensive, but they need to be done by volunteers with expertise in doing them.
The current board of directors is comprised of dedicated people with good intent, many having served tirelessly for a long time (some for more than 15 years!). Over time, the board has become increasingly populated by members of fire department boards.
It’s time for a board with members who reflect a broader spectrum of the community, with representation not only from local public fire agencies but also private forest industry, land management nonprofits, water and utility providers, businesses, and others with land management and fire science backgrounds. There should be a variety of ages, gender, and cultures. Should county supervisors continue to be on the board? (Federal and state agency employees are generally prohibited from being on a board.)
Most importantly, newer and more open approaches are needed to recruit new board members. I propose that a small committee be formed to seek, interview, and recommend or select new board members. This committee could be led by a member of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership and include three other members representing fire services, local nonprofits, and someone with land management experience.
Finally, the Fire Safe Council needs bylaws that reflect current best practices, including more specific delineation of the roles and responsibilities of the board versus the executive director. The board should have input on the overall budget, but not staffing. The bylaws also need to have more specific direction about committees, their delegated (or not) responsibilities, personnel, and transparent decision-making. The bylaws should specify how personnel complaints are made and addressed.
The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County plays a vital role here. This region has seen fire for thousands of years, the risk is increasing, and the need for hazard reduction is critical. It is not a question of if fires will occur but when.
We need to find a path forward to ensure that not only does the Fire Safe Council make it through this tough time, but that it thrives and grows. We are very fortunate to have the resources of the Center for Nonprofit Leadership to help us.
I and other leaders in the community are ready to lend our business, fire and land management experience to help.
Dr. Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman is a former Fire Safe Council Board member and retired fire scientist and land management planner from the U.S. Forest Service. Pat Leach is a corporate secretary with RCD Engineering, Inc. and a 14-year board member of the North San Juan Fire Protection District.
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