Editor’s note: Frank M. Riley, Jr., is the Executive Director of the Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council, based in northern Georgia. Frank is one of FAC Net’s original members, and has made innumerable valuable contributions to our network. In this blog, Frank outlines the growth of the Fire Adapted Communities framework in the southeast over the past decade, and includes a detailed example of a successful resident-led project known as Wildfire Resiliency Coalitions.
Roots of the southeastern FAC framework
The Fire Adapted Communities project here in the southeast started in 2013 in Towns County, Georgia. The “FAC Net Fire” then spread through the region by a network of residents learning how to minimize wildfire risk living in the WUI in the Appalachian region. In 2013, Towns County was one of the original eight FAC Net “hubs,” and soon the framework spread to the 13 counties covered by the Chestatee-Chattahoochee RC&D Council. After two years of development, trials, and recruiting partners such as the Georgia Forestry Commission, the US Forest Service, local fire agencies, and resident groups, our successes were noticed by the Region 8 Forester of the USFS. He asked us to duplicate our successful work “up the Appalachian mountains to Virginia,” and we recruited five more RC&Ds in the region to help spread the FAC concept by grassroots methods in WUI areas across the region.
The FAC framework spreads and grows
Successful projects completed through this partnership attracted funding and attention from local, state, and regional wildfire agencies in upstate South Carolina, and we were encouraged to expand. We grew to cover 62 counties across three states using the same FAC framework of community-led education and awareness of wildfire risks in their areas. Our next step in 2023 (depending on funding) is to spread into northwestern Georgia around the Cohutta National Forest, covering a total of 73 counties. The sky’s the limit as long as residents want to help themselves reduce the risks of wildfire.
Our footprint is continuous across north Georgia, up the Appalachian mountains of North Carolina and Virginia, and into northwestern South Carolina. Towns County is where it all started, and now out of 126 recognized Firewise USA communities in Georgia, Towns County (the smallest county in Georgia!) has 24 of them. It’s all about finding the right people and giving them support to help them create the Fire Adapted Communities way of life. You get them started, take the training wheels off, and give them a shove! They will fall down, but with the right people they will get back up and keep going. Grassroots methods and partnerships with local officials and residents are the only way for the FAC framework to be successful because the communities must own the practice and make it their way of life.
An Example of FAC in Practice: Developing Local, Resident-Led Wildfire Resiliency Coalitions
Note: This second portion of the blog was co-written by Frank Riley and Mike Davis, Forest Fire Management Officer for the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest.
During an 800-acre fire in Towns County, Georgia in 2008, local, state and federal emergency managers realized that people living in the wildland-urban interface who had moved to the mountains from urban areas had no clue about the risks from wildfire around their homes or what they could do to mitigate these risks. These agency representatives created a task force from the Towns County Volunteer Fire Department to explore solutions.
Firewise and Ready, Set, Go! programs were familiar, and the group began working with community leaders to create Firewise communities. They trained first responders in evacuation procedures and public outreach.
After five years or so, there were only three Firewise communities in a county with 199 neighborhoods threatened by wildfire. Task force leaders realized that to scale up wildfire resiliency efforts and ensure they are sustainable, residents must own their program and make it work for their benefit, and created the Wildfire Resiliency Coalition model. This new approach has proven to be successful and has allowed agency representatives to refocus their efforts on neighboring counties.
What is a resident-led Community Wildfire Resiliency Coalition?
We helped create the Towns County coalition in 2014, working with emergency agencies to develop a fire prevention and education program for Towns County. The Coalition’s purpose is to facilitate wildfire education programs and administer the development of Firewise communities and Ready, Set, Go! programs to prepare for wildfire in this area. Despite working on a range of fire adaptation strategies, coalition members and the larger community refer to the group as the “Towns County Firewise Coalition.”
The coalition includes the residents at risk and the first responders charged to protect property and lives, and the wildfire prevention and protection plans are developed with input from all concerned.
Supporting the coalition is an unofficial, ex-officio non-voting group who provide technical expertise, support, resources, equipment and funds as needed.
Best practices and tips for developing a coalition
- Begin with some type of wildfire risk assessment and use that to define your focus area and to raise awareness. In Georgia, we typically work at the county scale.
- Engage local leaders and influencers with an eye toward helping them meet their goals.
- Meet with the highest county authority, commissioners, county manager, city council persons, etc., or the person responsible for management of the area that will be affected by the FAC program. Include the officials in all publicity, which adds credibility with residents.
- Meet the fire chief in the district. Their support is very important. Include them in publicity. Include a representative from the department on the coalition for departmental support and input.
- Encourage commissioners and fire departments to help identify “spark plugs” in the community to recruit friends and neighbors to support the coalition.
Help the group get organized
- Organize the coalition leaders and provide training to facilitate meetings and carry on coalition business. The meetings must be structured and organized (we use Roberts Rules).
- Create a coalition charter. The group can be an official county-chartered group or independent, depending on local politics and what works best in the area. Outside control can kill or help a coalition. The charter defines the organization and lists officers and their roles and terms. Set term limits for each officer to encourage new people to join.
- Allow the community leader or “spark plug” to select members and organize the coalition. The coalition should include at least six residents and three emergency agency representatives.
What has worked for us:
- The coalition should hold meetings monthly at a set time and place.
- The coalition should participate in all local events to promote their wildfire message.
- The coalition must create a retention committee to keep existing neighborhoods engaged, informed, and active. Most of all, coalition members must be aware that the communities join voluntarily and are not obligated to participate.
- The coalition should promote “super” fire awareness community meetings. This means inviting all neighborhoods to come and hear “expert” speakers. This is more efficient than meeting with residents of one neighborhood at a time.
- Encourage the coalition members to “testify” about their successes in their neighborhoods. Peer-to-peer contact is very effective for the wildfire message.
- Most of all don’t ever give up! Creating a residents coalition is not a quick process. Once the momentum starts, keep it building – because once momentum slows and stops, restarting is nearly impossible.
- No one can do it alone.
- Include the local powers and keep them informed and in the news.
- Have a presence at as many public events as possible.
- Keep the coalition visible in the news; publish articles, PSAs, radio interviews, TV news stories, newspaper inserts, etc.
- Encourage the coalition to apply for grants and use the funds to help neighborhoods with mitigation projects and publicizing their efforts.
- Keep the ex-officio support fully engaged. If the coalition holds an event, the support agencies should be visible also. This gives credibility to the coalition.
Developing a successful resident-led community wildfire resiliency coalition is frustrating, tiring, and takes many hours of personal time, but once takes root, it will live with the community for a long time and become a way of life for many generations to come.