Farmer Gone FAC: A Day in the Life with Frank M. Riley Jr.
My roots run deep in Towns County, Georgia. My grandfather was born here in the Blue Ridge Mountains in 1889, and in fact, he was Towns County’s first county extension agent. Today, my wife and I live on his old farm, with the scenic Hiawassee River running through our woodlands and fields. In many ways, things look exactly like they did when he lived here. Each morning, I walk out of my house, admire the beautiful river, and feel eager to make a difference in someone’s life.
Although my day job is serving as the executive director of the Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation and Development Council (CCRCD), my typical day starts at 6:30 a.m. at the school bus shop. (I have been a substitute driver for 15 years.) Once I’m finished driving, my day turns to the many projects that CCRCD administers. I work closely with county commissioners in northeast Georgia, the Georgia Forestry Commission, the USDA Forest Service, federal, state and local officials, fire departments, schools and many community organizations. We also facilitate and sponsor events that promote the Natural Resources Conservation Service’s programs to small landowners, so there’s never a dull moment.
Today, I’ll spend some time with partners coordinating my prized accomplishment: the Appalachian-based Resource Conservation and Development Council FAC Coalition, which we call the Coalition. It’s is a group of six Resource Conservation and Development Councils (RCDCs) spreading the FAC concept in northeast Georgia, western North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. The Coalition includes residents, which is ideal in terms of earning community acceptance from their respective neighbors. The concept of the Coalition began after I gave a presentation in one of our north Georgia communities, where I was asked to spread our successful FAC work from Towns County further into the Appalachian Mountains, all the way to Virginia. The USFS provided the funds for us to begin in 2017. In the first 10 months, the Coalition organized 311 events and presented FAC concepts to 6,500 people. At one presentation, a resident said, “I never thought about the risk of fire up here, but your group has opened my eyes. Now we will take measures to be prepared; thank you!”
After answering some questions that came up at a recent Coalition presentation, I check in with one of our county foresters, Tony Harkins. Tony and CCRCD are advancing Towns County’s wildfire risk home assessment program, which is designed for people who live in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). The Coalition’s biggest challenge is gaining the trust and acceptance of locals, so in addition to our residential members, partnering with county foresters has been key. County foresters tend to live in the communities where they work and are considered the go-to experts about wildfire, so if they accept us, then their neighbors will too. We facilitate outreach meetings (which I ask the foresters to attend), publicize the wildfire risk home assessment program, and coordinate the assessment calendar. Then, foresters like Tony perform home assessments and design mitigation plans. After Tony and I discuss pending and upcoming assessments, I need to return a phone call from Marsha Elliott.
Marsha is the chair of the Towns County FAC group and a retired middle school principal. She takes the work of wildfire outreach to heart and is known for helping her members engage with their communities. The 2016 wildfire that burned near her home convinced her that the risk of wildfire is real. Largely thanks to her leadership, the number of Firewise USA™ sites in Towns County has increased from an initial three to 21. Among the many tricks up her sleeve, Marsha organizes old-fashioned, covered-dish dinners during cleanup days in her neighborhood. That always brings folks together.
Once she and I review action items from the last Towns County FAC meeting, I check in with the county emergency manager regarding scheduling another live evacuation drill, like the one we conducted a two years ago. First responders and firefighters benefited from that drill because they practiced their training without the threat of a real wildfire licking at their heels. The drill also helped residents realize the importance of leaving early. This was a critical lesson, as the drill was held in an area with narrow, steep roads, without shoulders or turn-outs. The first responders learned that they were not trained for multiagency incident command, particularly in terms of communication. Always better to learn those types of shortcomings in an exercise with the option of a “do-over.” Now, there’s a new staff member involved in emergency management who wants to learn more about how that drill went, so we discussed what we learned and made plans for the next one.
During an afternoon lull, I check in with some of my Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net) colleagues on Podio, to learn what other FAC practitioners are up to across the country. (Thanks to Bluetooth in my truck, I can do this on the move.) In this instance, Podio dialogue helps me understand some of the funding sources available for outreach programs related to first responders and evacuation planning in the WUI.
I first heard about FAC Net right around when I was wondering what to do next to keep CCRCD’s doors open. Lynn Jungwirth, former director of the Watershed Research and Training Center, called me and asked, “Would you be interested in joining the Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network?” I jumped at the chance and that was the start of where we are today, with four wildfire-related programs spanning three states. When I told Mike Davis, the Chattahoochee-Oconee National Forest’s fire management officer, about Lynn’s invitation, he sat back in his chair and said, “That’s a big deal!” Mike is my partner, mentor and friend. Five years later and our Appalachian spin on fire adaptation has not only sprouted from CCRCD, but it has successfully spread into North Carolina and southwestern Virginia. Among its many functions, FAC Net is a virtual library of knowledge and support for our work here in the Southeast.
That reminds me, I need to call Mike about the upcoming Georgia Prescribed Fire Council’s steering committee meeting. In addition to us both serving on the steering committee, he and I are creating a North Georgia Sub-Chapter of the group, to increase the participation of landowners and foresters from our area. My colleague, Kimberly McCollum, and I will administer the group out of our Demorest office. The three of us need to discuss the logistics of the sub-chapter and identify how to organize the group before the next steering committee meeting. CCRCD also works with NRCS to pair certified burners with landowners who want to apply prescribed fire on their property, something else we touch on during our call. These are just two of our efforts to increase prescribed fire in our area.
Advancing FAC is a lot like riding a bicycle; the faster you pedal, the faster you go. You will encounter bumps, curves, hills and coasting moments alike — but one thing is for sure: if you stop pedaling, starting over is not easy. The trick is to enlist partners to help keep the pedals going. When we began presenting FAC principles to communities, we noticed that the events were almost like old-time tent revivals. During the presentations, everybody was caught up in the energy of the moment, but when the frenzy died down, it was back to business-as-usual and nothing changed. We realized that we had to find a “sparkplug” in each community to keep that “fire-adapted spirit” burning, or to ensure that the fire adapted community “bicycle” keeps building momentum. All in all, much of my day is dedicated to working with those sparkplugs.
When the CCRCD light is turned off for the day, I go back to my farm, where I transform into the farmer who I always wanted to be. We grow sweet corn, sunflowers, pumpkins and tomatoes for our roadside and farmers’ markets. I am also a farm equipment collector, with seven tractors (all of which are family heirlooms, two from the 1940s). Farming has been in my blood for my 68 years, and nothing beats the reward of preparing the soil, planting seeds, and then watching crops go through their lifecycle. Harvest is my favorite time of the year. There is no better feeling than the satisfaction that comes on a fall evening, watching the sunset, then the stars and at some point that final hopper of corn as it falls into the wagon. When the equipment shuts down, things quiet down enough to hear the cold wind blowing through the trees, while the whip-“o”-will sing somewhere in the distance. It doesn’t get any better than that.
Frank M. Riley Jr., the executive director of CCRCD, advances fire adaptation in the green foothills and the Blue Ridge Mountains of northeast Georgia. Before working with CCRCD, Frank worked for 41 years as a professional forester focused on lumber production, forest management, software development and organizational leadership (including when he served as the interim executive director of the Georgia Forestry Association).
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