USFS Region 8 Forester Tony Tooke & Towns County FAC Coalition. Photo Credit: CCRC&D Council.

Topic: Defensible space / Firewise Learning networks Type: Essay

Appalachian RC&D Coalition

Authors: Frank Riley Jr. Chestatee/chattahoochee RC&D Council

The Chestatee/Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council (CCRC&D) is a non-profit organization located in northeast Georgia that covers the 13 counties in that corner of the state. Included in the working area are the Blue Ridge Mountains, which are part of the Appalachian mountain chain that stretches north from Georgia. The CCRC&D Council has always been on the forefront with projects and programs that bring new ideas and businesses to the citizens that it serves. In 2013, CCRC&D was chosen as one of the original eight pilot hubs for the Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) Learning Network, and since then it has worked hard with its partners to make their FAC program highly successful. There are now 19 Firewise communities in Towns County alone (with six more in the works), and it is the leading Firewise program in Georgia—not bad for a county that only has 10,500 permanent residents, and where 52 percent of the land base is national forest.

Their FAC messaging is driven by a group of dedicated citizens that make up the Towns County FAC Citizen’s Coalition. This coalition meets monthly and keeps the FAC and Firewise messages out in front of their friends, neighbors and colleagues who live in these mountains, some of whom have no clue about the wildfire risks that surround them. The Citizen’s Coalition is dedicated to making the area more fire resilient and to keeping the mountain landscape pristine, which is the draw for people visiting and settling there. They know that if these mountains experience catastrophic fire, few people will want to visit. Since they started working with the FAC Learning Network, the Coalition has seen major drops in wildfire-related calls, including a 40 percent drop in calls the first year and 90 percent drop the second year; this year is on track to be even better. The peer-to-peer connections fostered by the network and local partners are helping the group achieve these results!

Back in April, Tony Tooke, the new USFS Region 8 Forester, visited Towns County to see what we in the FAC team have been working on. For the past nine years, Mr. Tooke has worked with the Forest Service in Washington, and when he saw what our program was doing, he commented that this was what Washington wants to see happening out in the field, and that he would like to see this program move all the way up the Appalachian Mountain chain to Virginia. We said, “Yes Sir, it only takes money and a lot of dedicated people.” The dedicated people are in every community in the Appalachian area and the trick is to find them and organize them into what we have here in north Georgia. We began to look for organizations that could carry this ball for us and realized that our fellow RC&D Councils fit the bill perfectly. RC&D Councils have been managing projects of this kind with great success since 1962. For the past couple of months, we have been talking to RC&D councils in North Carolina and Virginia about FAC, Firewise, and the Fire Learning Network. RC&D councils have several things that make them a natural fit for our journey up the Appalachians: they consist of local citizens with diverse and varied backgrounds who are public servants, business owners and farmers; they are established in the areas where they serve; and they are all looking for a way to keep their doors open with new projects. These are the people who can make FAC happen in the local communities, just like they have in Towns County. There are five RC&D councils along the string of Appalachian Mountains from Georgia to Virginia, and some have even been involved with wildfire programs in the past. These councils can help spread our FAC and Firewise programs and meet Mr. Tooke’s challenge.

Last week I was invited to present about fire adapted communities and the Firewise program to the Blue Ridge RC&D Council in Boone, North Carolina. On the way to Boone, I picked up Lynn Sprague, the Executive Director of the Southwestern North Carolina RC&D council, and we stopped by Marshall, North Carolina to visit Jessica Hocz, Executive Director of the Mountain Valleys (NC) RC&D Council. We have also had conversations with Marquis Gray, Executive Director of the New River-Highlands RC&D Council in Wytheville, VA, which covers southwestern Virginia. This string of RC&Ds from Georgia to Virginia covers a continuous area of Appalachian Mountains where most communities are in the wildland-urban interface and in need of what FAC has to offer. We are forming a new fire adapted communities group with these five RC&D Councils; it will be called the Appalachian RC&D Coalition, and its mission will be to spread messaging about what a fire adapted communities approach can offer to those who live in the Appalachian Mountains. Mr. Tooke’s challenge did not go unheeded, and we look forward to working with the USFS and regional partners to grow the FAC movement in Appalachia!

For more information on the Appalachian RC&D Coalition, contact Frank Riley, Executive Director of the Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D Council, located in Demorest, Georgia: 706-897-1676 or frank.ccrcd [at] gmail.com

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