Photo Caption: AmeriCorps volunteers at work in Gerton, North Carolina reducing risk around homes of people who were not able to do the work themselves. Because of their work, Gerton is now a recognized Firewise USA site and the wildfire risks around these homes has been greatly reduced. Photo Courtesy of Stars Creative.


Editors Note: Frank M. Riley, Jr. is the Executive Director of the Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Council based in northeast Georgia. Frank and the CCRCD were among the original eight sites chosen as pilots when FAC Net first launched in 2013. Since then CCRCD has joined forces with five fellow RC&Ds across the Appalachian mountain chain to form the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition. Here Frank and his fellow FAC Coalition members Jessica and Lynn share their individual stories of their work towards community fire adaptation in the Southeast with the vital help of AmeriCorps members.

 

Logo that reads Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition with graphic of sun, mountain, trees and water

The Founding of a FAC Coalition and How AmeriCorps Has a Primary Seat at the Table

By Frank M. Riley, Jr.,

The Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation & Development Council (CCRCD), develops, manages, and administers grants, cooperative agreements, and contracts for many local, state, regional and national natural resource agencies, as well as, organizations for agriculture, wildfire and natural resource programs. CCRCD is the Georgia Firewise USA® Liaison, administering the Firewise USA® program for 112 sites in Georgia. When CCRCD joined FAC Net in 2013 we began to expand our work into wildfire education, community risk reduction and mitigation. We started networking with communities located in the Wildland Urban Interface (WUI) where wildfire risk is an ever-present danger. In the WUI the residents are living their dream of being in the forests, among the woodland critters and communing with nature, however many do not recognize the wildfire danger that if left unchecked can quickly destroy their homes and dreams.

In 2015 CCRCD was asked by the US Forest Service Region 8 Forester to take the successful wildfire risk reduction work being done through FAC Net and Firewise USA® in north Georgia and spread it up the Appalachian mountain chain through western North Carolina and into Virginia. To develop this new venture, CCRCD recruited 5 fellow RC&D’s located in the Appalachian footprint to engage their established community member networks and thus the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition was born. RC&Ds are made up of citizens who live and work in the communities they serve so they are an ideal partner to engage for implementing new community programs. The Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition, now in its third round of funding, is tasked with bringing partners, agencies, organizations, groups and anyone else who is interested in providing a safer environment for communities in the WUI together to achieve the common goal of reducing wildfire risk. We understand and teach that FAC is not a program, but a way of life and it must be learned, lived and passed on to future generations to help communities help themselves become safer from wildfires and stay that way.

Map of IN, KY, TN, NC, GA, MD, AL and MS with county lines and shading where RC&Ds operate

The footprint of the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition showing the coverage area of each individual RC&D Council. Map courtesy of Frank Riley.

A group of people sit around a table.

Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition partners development meeting 2016. Around the table is Chest-Chatt RC&D, Blue Ridge RC&D, Mountain Valleys RC&D, Carolina Land & Lakes RC&D, The Nature Conservancy, and North Carolina Forest Service. Photo courtesy of Frank Riley CCRCD.

The six RC&D councils that make up the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition are each staffed by only two or three staff members so working with many other partners is an essential element to success of the program. Wildfire mitigation and fuels reduction work, such as removing debris around homes, requires a lot of human power. Residents do some of the work but to achieve the results needed to make a real impact volunteer or service groups are brought in to help. One such group that has proved invaluable to our work is AmeriCorps. AmeriCorps, a national service organization, has the people power and manual labor necessary to get the job done and fulfill the goals of any fire mitigation project. It is the only federal agency that is focused on community service and volunteerism.

There is strength in numbers and collectively all the partners along with groups like AmeriCorps can concentrate their resources and make a bigger impact. AmeriCorps volunteers have become an essential partner in our FAC Coalition, and we will use them any chance we get. Now, my fellow Coalition members, Jessica and Lynn share their own AmeriCorps stories…

From AmeriCorps Volunteer to Helping Communities Foster Resilience

Headshot of a woman outside with green grass and trees behind her

Jessica Hocz, Photo courtesy of Mountain Valleys RC&D.

By Jessica Hocz, AmeriCorps Veteran, Executive Director of Mountain Valleys RC&D Council, and Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition member  

In 1998, as an AmeriCorps member, I had the opportunity to work on a trail crew in the Emigrant Wilderness of Stanislaus National Forest, in the Sierra Nevada backcountry. The AmeriCorps program had recently partnered with the California Conservation Corps (CCC) Backcountry Trails Program, which required spending an entire five months at remote backcountry camps with your 15-20 person crew. No phones, no showers, and your only possessions were what you had carried in on your back. The food, tools and kitchen tent were brought in on horseback. Fortunately, our cook was amazing. Unfortunately, 1998 was one of the most powerful El Nino events in recorded history, and it rained every day for the first ten weeks that we were out there. I knew that learning to live and work together with my crew was going to be a challenge, but this had literally become wilderness survival. My socks, work gloves and tent floor were always wet, but morning Physical Training still started at 7am, followed by a long day of rolling rocks in the rain and digging in the mud. Around July 1st the rain stopped, three crew members had quit, and the rest of us had to learn to live and work as a collective unit. By October, this way of life felt completely natural, and I went on to work trails for another five summers in Humboldt-Toiyabe National Forest and Glacier National Park.

Fast forward to 2009, I had just completed a master’s degree in Landscape Architecture from NC State University, and the economic recession that had started in 2007 was now a total crisis. I had recently married and moved to a small-town north of Asheville, NC to build a life with my new husband. As my job search began, I came across an AmeriCorps position at the Mountain Valleys Resource Conservation & Development (RC&D) Council. The nonprofit was in the same town where I had moved and offered the experience to work with communities and natural resources. Accepting that position is one of the best decisions I have ever made. In addition to environmental stewardship, working with communities had become the focus of my work at NC State, and this is the fundamental nature of what RC&Ds do. This shared vision led to joining the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition in 2016. Resilience in the face of adversity is also an underlying lying theme in the Appalachian RC&D Coalition work. Each RC&D covers several counties, and we all face the same challenges of helping communities in steep remote mountains become more prepared for wildfire emergencies. The Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition and Firewise USA®  programs also cultivate collective action at a community level. This approach involves networks of neighbors, involvement with local wildfire agencies, wildfire prevention, increased fuel mitigation and emergency access improvements. Ultimately, we hope this leads to a large-scale social shift in increased risk awareness, making residents in the WUI better prepared for the future.

AmeriCorps helped build resilience in me and taught me that working together is our best chance for building resilience when we face community, regional and global challenges.

Gerton, North Carolina Gets a Firewise USA® Boost from AmeriCorps

Headshot of an older man with a white background

Lynn Sprague. Photo courtesy of Southwestern NC RC&D.

By: Lynn Sprague, Executive Director – Southwestern NC RC&D Council & Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition member 

Gerton, NC is a small heavily wooded unincorporated town with many residents living in the WUI. In 2016 they saw the Chimney Rock Fire getting closer to their homes and it was only through luck they avoided disaster. Gerton’s Fire Chief, Jim Sanes, had recently reached out to the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition for help with work on becoming a Firewise USA® site and wanted to make a demonstration of a few Firewise USA® managed homes. Coinciding with that, Kristen Lee, program director for the Carolina Mountain Land Conservancy – AmeriCorps Project Conserve, wanted a member service day to focus on wildfire assistance. We jumped at this opportunity and headed to Gerton. Through a drawing, six homes in need of wildfire mitigation work were chosen and the 32 AmeriCorps members got to work. After over 140+ hours of combined work Gerton became a certified Firewise USA® site and has an ongoing working relationship with AmeriCorps.

I have worked with AmeriCorps for years, at one time I managed a core program of 25 members assisting soil and water conservation districts, land trusts, agencies and nonprofits across North Carolina. I have been witness to such great enthusiasm by Corps members to get a variety of work done from restoring an abandoned school into an agriculture development center to assisting with water quality projects, forestry, agriculture, conservation education and even engaging with social media activities. I like AmeriCorps because it has a structure for leadership, public service and getting projects done. Fire adaptation efforts and Firewise USA® activities fit AmeriCorps very well as they focus on particular sites, need a lot of hands and greatly benefits communities. One of the greatest compliments I get is when a young person comes up to me years after their service and and says, “Because I worked with you as an AmeriCorps member, I have a conservation job as a (fill in the blank), thanks.”

Three women in AmeriCorps t-shirts and holding rakes wave while standing out front of a house.

Two women rake on the hillside

Four people remove brush alongside a house on a hillside

AmeriCorps volunteers at work in Gerton, North Carolina reducing risk around homes of people who were not able to do the work themselves. Because of their work, Gerton is now a recognized Firewise USA site and the wildfire risks around these homes has been greatly reduced. Photo Courtesy of Stars Creative.

Frank M. Riley, Jr. is Executive Director of the Chestatee-Chattahoochee Resource Conservation & Development Council, the Georgia Firewise USA® Liaison, the developer, and administrator of the Appalachian RC&D FAC Coalition and the Southeast Fire Adapted Communities Network member.

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