Photo Credit: The state of New Jersey depicted in forest tree. Photo courtesy of Canva Creative Commons.

Editors’ Note: Bill Brash is the founder and President of FAC Net member organization New Jersey Fire Safety Council (NJFSC) which works to to achieve Municipal resiliency through wildfire preparedness and prevention efforts. Bill has worked with the New Jersey Forest Fire Service as a wildfire preparedness planner since 2010 developing the first Community Wildfire Protection Plans for 35 “at-risk” communities across New Jersey. Bill is an active member of the New Jersey Forest Fire Service’s B10 crew. We featured Bill and his incredible work in New Jersey on a blog last year. Here Bill shares how a collaboration between NJFSC and a statewide environmentally focused organization called Sustainable Jersey, was born; the two groups shared a common goal: to help to make New Jersey more resilient. 

New Jersey has a wildfire problem. 800,000 people living among one of the most volatile ecosystems in America, the 1.1 million acre Pine Barrens of south Jersey.

New Jersey also has a wildfire preparedness staffing problem with only a single person responsible for coordinating preparedness statewide and programs that include Firewise USA ® sites, Ready-Set-Go, Community Wildfire Protection Plans (CWPP) and local Wildfire Safety Councils.

How could we do a better job of bringing wildfire preparedness to the at-risk Municipalities in the Pine Barrens with the institutional limitations of NJ Forest Fire Service staff and the small capacity of these rural at-risk Municipalities? We needed partners. We needed partners that shared our vision of resiliency and we needed to look outside the traditional wildfire community – think “outside the box”. We needed to build capacity inside and outside our community and we needed a new institutional structure in which to implement it.

In looking for a partner that shared our vision on resiliency we looked to a past working relationship with Donna Drewes through of our work with NJ Community Forestry Council. Donna’s organization Sustainable Jersey had an institutional structure that was made for building capacity for wildfire preparedness in small rural municipalities. A simple phone call to arrange a meeting between Sustainable Jersey, the NJ Forest Fire Service and the NJ Fire Safety Council to discuss mutual goals was straightforward and quickly arranged.

A group of people posing and smiling holding plaques

The original founding group of Sustainable Jersey with Executive Director Donna Drewes in center. Photo courtesy of Sustainable Jersey.

Sustainable Jersey is environmentally focused organization built around fostering resiliency at the Municipal level through actions each community can take to build a “sustainable future.”

Logo for Sustainable Jersey that reads:Sustainable Jersey Certified a better tomorrow, one communtiy at a time.From the Sustainable Jersey website the group’s formation “began as an informal partnership that has evolved and been shaped by the contributions and perspectives of many. In 2006, The College of New Jersey was funded by the Geraldine R. Dodge Foundation to create a ‘Sustainable Communities Leadership Network.’ The network was tasked with supporting municipal progress toward sustainable development by identifying best practices, facilitating peer to peer learning, developing metrics to judge performance and providing direct technical support and training. Around the same time, a group of mayors at the New Jersey League of Municipalities (NJLM) was coming together to form a ‘green mayors’ group that would work to support similar activities.”

text infographic laying out achievements in numbers

An infographic from the Sustainable Jersey website shows the reach of their Municipal Certification Program. Graphic courtesy of Sustainable Jersey.

A map of New Jersey with pins and markers.

This map showcases Municipalities and sites of successfully completed Sustainable Jersey Approved Actions. Graphic courtesy of Sustainable Jersey website.

It is important to point out that New Jersey is a “home rule” state comprised of 566 Municipalities each with their own governing body, school system and function. Whereas most other state’s government begins at the county level, New Jersey as a “home rule” state brings government closer to the people. Sustainable Jersey’s constituents and participants in their programs are these Municipalities themselves, (457 of the 566 in the State).

The Glue That Brought the Partnership Together: Resiliency

A house is damaged from Hurricane Sandy

The storm that forever changed New Jersey, Hurricane Sandy, 2012. A scene from Mantaloking, NJ. Photo by Hypnotica Studios Infinite, Flickr Creative Commons.

Our goal of achieving Municipal resiliency to wildfire, was aligned with existing Sustainable Jersey efforts to improve Municipal emergency management efforts for storm events such as hurricanes and flooding or wind events like derechos that can severely impact Municipal response efforts. So the NJ Forest Fire Service and NJ Fire Safety Council met with Sustainable Jersey back in 2015 to learn how each organization could improve their resiliency efforts. Another shared goal became apparent – reaching more Municipalities with services and help.

The NJ Forest Fire Service needed help to build wildfire preparedness capacity in rural communities and Sustainable Jersey needed a way to access these small communities as they were at an institutional disadvantage to other larger more established municipalities interested in participating in the Sustainable Jersey Program.

In 2015 Sustainable Jersey was building their Emergency Management for Resiliency Suite of Certifiable Actions and wildfire actions were a perfect fit for this suite. In addition, those small rural municipalities were seeking ways to build their Sustainable Jersey credentials but often didn’t have the capacity to do many of the other actions completed by urban Municipalities so wildfire actions were their most achievable path forward. We could build capacity for at-risk Municipalities through local efforts at resiliency, while access to Sustainable Jersey’s programs became more attractive to these smaller rural communities. It was a win-win.

Sustainable Jersey has 18 basic categories of Certifiable Actions that a municipality can take to improve their resiliency and receive “points” towards their status, (Gold, Silver and Bronze). The more activities a municipality completes the more points they achieve and the closer they get to an award status. Being involved and active in the programs also provides access to funding for sustainable projects through their competitive grant program.

An aerial image of burned forest in New Jersey

The Spring Hill wildfire in March 2019 was fueled by strong sight-line winds from the south, burned 4 miles in 3 hours and threatened to engulf Roosevelt City, a 1,200 lot development in Manchester Township, Ocean County. Photo courtesy of NJDEP.

Partnering with an environmental organization with mutual interests was easy, professional and rewarding. The process of establishing wildfire actions that were certifiable under the Sustainable Jersey Program seemed to work itself to a successful conclusion. Initially four wildfire actions appeared ready made for the program and were quickly selected:

  •       Firewise USA ® sites
  •       Ready-Set-Go Fire Companies
  •       Municipal CWPP’s
  •       Municipal Fire Safety Councils

As we worked through the Sustainable Jersey process, we developed guidance documents for Municipalities interested in seeking to certify one of the four wildfire actions. Through this process it became apparent that certain actions lent themselves to mentoring and collaboration. For example, a municipality with a Firewise USA ® site could assist or mentor a municipality seeking to establish a site and gain Sustainable Jersey points when certified. In the end it was determined that it made sense for both municipalities – the mentor and the mentee – to receive points for their efforts.

It was through this mentoring opportunity that the need for institutional knowledge and staffing was identified; the mentors needed support. So the New Jersey Fire Adapted Communities (NJ FAC) Ambassador program was established to fill this gap. From that first class of NJ FAC Ambassadors came a mentoring group….along with a CORE support and advocacy group for wildfire efforts. A VOICE for wildfire management. A voice that was unheard in NJ prior to the Sustainable Jersey Partnership.

A woman speaks to a group of people in a conference room

Nancy Reid from Barnegat Township, provides mentoring guidance to Country Walk, Manchester Township on gaining Sustainable Jersey points for wildfire preparedness efforts. Photo by Greg McLaughlin, NJFFS.

New Jersey’s entire FAC Net partnership has been a process of building upon past projects, addressing gaps and needs and constantly working to improve upon that initial action. The national Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network (FAC Net) has been an invaluable partner to New Jersey as we have built out our programs. FAC Net has been financially and technically supportive of this plan from the beginning and a big factor in the success we have been able to achieve.

In Retrospect

Wildfire awareness and outreach is more important than ever in our efforts to prepare people for the when, not the if, of a wildfire. We cannot and should not be on our own for this function. Resiliency is a shared goal of many cross-boundary/purpose driven agencies whether they be environmentally oriented, emergency management, state police or private business.

Seek out a partnership with an organization that shares mutual goals and you may find the solution to your outreach effort easier to accomplish than you first imagined. Past NJ Fire Safety Council Board member John Cowie used to say, “every successful effort begins with a relationship, but that effort cannot be sustained without a partnership.”

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