Photo Credit: Towns County FAC Coalition. Photo by Frank Riley
Towns County is the smallest county in Georgia with about 10,500 full-time residents and twice that during the summer months. People retire up here from Florida or Atlanta or some other urban place where wildfire risk is not much of an issue. Towns is nestled in the Blue Ridge Mountains of north Georgia on the North Carolina border and 52 percent of the county is managed by the USDA Forest Service.
We have many unsuspecting people living in remote places on very narrow roads, with a volunteer fire department that is not trained for wildfires. This presents some real challenges for the agencies tasked with protecting the county.
In 2008 Towns experienced an 800-acre wildfire, which was a large one for the county. The fire was in the national forest, but it threatened several communities. The fire burned for several days and showed that the county was unprepared for a large wildfire incident. This fact was really impressed upon the citizens when they watched C-130 aerial tankers dropping retardant near their homes, helicopters dipping water from the lake, the hot shot crews with all of their equipment, and the smoke that settled in the valley for days.
During one of the incident briefings at the command post, the local fire chief, the Forest Service fire management office and the Forest Commission district ranger were discussing the dangerous situation and trying to find a way to prevent future incidents. That’s when the Firewise program was brought up. Soon thereafter, a fire safety education coordinator (volunteer) was recruited to start a Firewise program in the county. We started in 2009 with the Lake Forest Community, which became the first Firewise community in Towns County. Lake Forest was organized by a retired state fire marshall from Florida who lives there. The program simmered slowly for a couple of years, and in 2011 two more communities received Firewise designation.
Fast-forward to 2013, when we were invited to participate in the FAC Net. Since then Towns has diversified its approach and engaged additional stakeholders to address more elements of the “FAC wheel.” The Firewise Communities USA program, which we do well, was the anchor. At some point, we realized that if we had all of the communities “Firewise” and could not evacuate the people during a fire we had not done our job. So we incorporated Ready, Set, Go!. In 2015 we held a full scale evacuation exercise in the Lake Forest community with all local, state, federal and mutual aid emergency agencies participating.
One other important component of FAC is internal safety zones. We can get the people out of their neighborhoods, but then where do they go? We now have plans for each community to evacuate to a pre-determined safe site. Fuel reduction and forest management are the responsibility of the Forest Service, and our FAC program works to educate the public about the virtues of prescribed burning, thinning and creating fire breaks around communities. When these actions are explained to the people in conjunction with their safety, they are more likely to accept these practices.
Prevention education is a constant process, and we take our FAC/Firewise trailer and tent to any event in the county and distribute information about our wildfire safety program. We present programs to the elementary and middle school kids each fall, and are present at most homeowner association meetings to keep the citizens informed.
Towns had the first CWPP in Georgia, and is now in the process of updating it. Towns has cooperative agreements with federal, state and surrounding county agencies for mutual aid if there is an incident that overwhelms the local capacity. The volunteer fire rescue department can handle one structure fire well, but multiple fires will overwhelm the volunteers quickly.
There’s always room for improvement, but we’re working hard to make our FAC efforts sustainable and as integrated as possible.
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