Editor’s note: Julia Marsili is the Senior Grant Specialist for the California Fire Safe Council (CFSC). In this blog, Julia writes about the Council’s County Coordinator Grant Program, a project to bolster connection and collaboration between wildfire mitigation efforts in counties across California. Julia offers some insights on how CFSC kicked off the program, some examples of work happening on the ground by County Coordinators in the state, and some suggestions for how to think about beginning a similar program in another state.
A Growing Dialogue in the Wildfire Mitigation Space
Common questions emerge when thinking about building fire adapted communities: how do you plan for the unique needs of the community while simultaneously integrating into the larger county and regional wildfire practitioner networks? How do you build collaboration among a multitude of groups that are often volunteer driven, over capacity, competing for limited funds, and existing on a vast spectrum of geographies, cultures, political affiliations, and rules for playing the game?
As a leader in community wildfire risk reduction and resiliency, the California Fire Safe Council (CFSC) has long been part of a growing dialogue around the need for collaborative networks. CFSC offers a Grant Clearinghouse, which funds grants for wildfire mitigation, planning, and education projects, as well as programs with varying levels of technical support for community wildfire preparedness groups. After operating in the wildfire mitigation space for more than 20 years, CFSC and our partners have consistently faced the issue of how to bolster practitioner coordination and collaboration. It became clear that, in order to truly be a leader in the field, CFSC would need to support Fire Safe Councils and similar organizations while also helping them to mesh into the larger framework of Firewise Communities, fire departments, tribes/tribal entities, RCDs, county/state/federal agencies, and other practitioners.
I joined CFSC as a Grant Specialist in 2021 to help mobilize this long-held conversation into action through a pilot grant project—the CFSC County Coordinator Grant Program. The objective of this new program is to educate, encourage, and develop county-wide collaboration and coordination among various wildfire mitigation groups. The program, funded by CAL FIRE and managed by CFSC, provides counties with $175,000 to hire a County Coordinator, whose role would be to 1) build a census of all active wildfire mitigation groups in their county, 2) analyze gaps in county-wide wildfire resiliency and emergency preparedness and develop recommendations to fill these gaps, and 3) develop mechanisms to improve outreach and coordination efforts.
It’s Never as Easy as It Sounds
A grant program that initially seemed straight-forward in theory (perhaps I was naïve) morphed into a much more complex case study of each county’s unique wildfire mitigation needs. Some counties have been doing this collaborative work in the wildfire space for years and eagerly sought funding to expand on existing efforts, while others were completely new to the idea of county-level wildfire mitigation and relationship building.
It became clear that CFSC would have to be nimble and adapt the project to each county’s individual needs and strengths. I believe this flexibility and support is part of what makes CFSC unique as a grantmaking agency. We walk alongside our grantees and are willing to work in partnership with them, adapting the project along the way to achieve our shared vision. The County Coordinator program highlighted the need for flexibility, as we worked behind the scenes to create an administrative funding source that was adaptable enough to be successful in counties across California.
After a lot of fine-tuning, we opened the grant program for applications and CFSC ultimately funded 24 pilot counties in November 2021. We continued to learn lessons in nimbleness as these counties attempted to hire their County Coordinators during arguably one of the most challenging hiring environments in modern workforce history.
Unique Projects Develop
One by one, the County Coordinators were onboarded, and we began to see 24 unique projects take shape. Some County Coordinators went to work acting as intermediaries between groups to help heal old wounds and facilitate a shared vision for the future. Others help their counties bring once-excluded practitioners into the Community Wildfire Protection Plan (CWPP) update process, host outreach events, expand their online presence, and develop collaborative grant proposals. Sometimes the County Coordinator simply serves as an extra set of hands to ensure nothing falls through the cracks. However, each funded county has shown that a little bit of human capital and a dash of extra capacity goes a long way in welcoming more voices into the wildfire conversation.
In many counties, the County Coordinator acts as a liaison between practitioners, agencies, and the county to ensure a circular flow of information and resources. For example, in Placer County, the County Coordinator attends local Fire Safe Council monthly meetings and shares information and opportunities from county officials and agencies, as well as communicates local project updates with the county’s board of supervisors. The Placer County Coordinator also hosts Fire Safe Alliance meetings as an open forum for all active wildfire practitioners and county partners to collaborate, prioritize projects, and develop shared goals and action items.
CWPP updates have emerged as an important part of many County Coordinators’ day-to-day work. The Lassen County Coordinator has played a key role in developing the county’s CWPP work plan, hosting meetings with stakeholders, ranking and prioritizing projects, and building project maps and databases. A County Coordinators’ “thirty-thousand-foot view” of local practitioners, from small Firewise Communities and Fire Safe Councils to state and federal partners, have made them a great choice to lead CWPP collaboratives and assist with project prioritization and strategizing.
As I reflect on how the project has evolved, one experience comes to mind that exemplifies the intent of the County Coordinator program. In September, I headed to Alpine County with a colleague to perform a grant site visit. The Alpine County Coordinator, Clint Celio, had planned an ambitious day for us, visiting projects and touring the Tamarack Fire burn scar. Over the course of only one day, Clint organized meetings with the following… county officials, Alpine County Fire Safe Council, the US Forest Service, the CAL FIRE Assistant Unit Chief, Kirkwood Firewise Community, Kirkwood Fire Department, a local public utilities district, a ski resort representative, and the Alpine Watershed Group. It was remarkable to witness this diverse group of stakeholders and practitioners join forces to overcome challenges and work together to build a collaborative Alpine County mitigation network. These groups have a long history of successful work in the county, but my visit showed that adding a County Coordinator to the mix filled gaps and brought a multitude of stakeholders to the same table.
Where Do We Go from Here?
The County Coordinator Grant Program has evolved into something we couldn’t foresee two years ago. The triumphs and hurdles over the past two years have confirmed a clear need for this type of funding. More than a year after the initial 24 counties were funded, there are now County Coordinator projects in 52 of the 58 counties in California. Check out this map for all funded project locations. This program has been a lesson in flexibility, unexpected outcomes, and re-writing the rules more times than I can count. However, what has emerged is a cohort of passionate and talented County Coordinators eager to listen, learn, connect, and fill in critical gaps.
If I were to provide lessons learned for those interested in building a similar program in their state, they would look something like this:
- Be flexible. Flexibility in project design, budget, and timelines are key when funding a county-level, administrative program. Find a funding partner who understands this as well and is willing to be patient when the project modifications start hitting their desk.
- Similarly, plan for a longer project performance period than what you think is needed. Hiring and onboarding talent takes a lot of time, especially at the local government level.
- Keep in mind that funds granted at the county level may need to be accepted by passing a resolution, depending on your state’s government structure. Grant agreements, modifications, and extensions may have to be placed on a future agenda and voted on, which could certainly impact timelines. Again, flexibility.
- When hiring for a County Coordinator or similar position, hold out for a candidate with a deep understanding of the county’s individual landscape, politics, and demographics.
- Think methodically about intended project goals and outcomes and be clear with grantees about any data you would like them to collect from the start. Qualitative measures of success are difficult, and measuring the success of an administrative grant that funds human capital can be trickier than, for instance, a XXX acres treated fuel reduction project. It might be helpful to consult with an expert in data collection and program evaluation.
- Be clear in your expected outcomes but allow each county to build a project that meets their unique collaborative needs.
The future of the County Coordinator program is both unlimited and uncertain. CFSC is working to develop additional tools and funding to support the long-term success of the County Coordinators. These tools include a shared Geographic Information System database to help them collect and organize information on local wildfire practitioners, as well as a website where the public can connect directly with their County Coordinator. While CFSC is actively working to secure funding to sustain the program, the reality is, though, the future of funding is uncertain. Relationship building is a marathon, and the County Coordinators are just getting started. For them to truly succeed, it is imperative that we allow them to do their jobs for the long haul.
With more voices entering the ring, the future of fire-adapted communities is brighter than ever before. I’m proud of the County Coordinators’ contributions to these efforts and encourage you to reach out and hear their stories firsthand. If you would like more information on the program and how to connect with your County Coordinator, please contact me at email@example.com, keep an eye on our website www.cafiresafecouncil.org for future updates, and follow the California Fire Safe Council on social media.