November 3-9, 2013 Wildfire Week proclamation signing by Towns County Sole Commissioner Bill Kendall with Fire Corps president Liz Ordailes, Fire Chief Mitch Floyd, Towns County FAC coordinator Frank Riley, USFS Blue Ridge Ranger District FMO Jason Demas, GFC Ranger Roy Fortenberry. Photo credit: Towns County Commissioners Office.

Topic: Communications / Outreach Defensible space / Firewise Meetings / Events Resilience Type: Tools / Resources

Making Things Happen for Rural America Is What RC&D’s Do

Author: Frank Riley

Workers are the most valuable part of any program and they are usually the hardest component to gather up, but if you look under the right rocks in most communities there are groups that will pitch in and make a worthwhile project happen. One of these groups is a long-standing organization of community volunteers that many times are overlooked because for most of their history they were embedded in the Natural Resources Conservation Service (NRCS, formerly the Soil Conservation Service) and not visible. This group is the Resource Conservation & Development Council (RC&D) and is made up of local community volunteers who are always looking for a project where they can make a difference in a community. Below is some additional background on RC&D’s that I hope will be useful to those of you looking for help starting a local fire adapted communities program.

The Resource Conservation and Development (RC&D) Program was created in the Agricultural Act of 1962 to assist local people in planning and carrying out activities that conserve natural resources, support economic development, enhance the environment and improve the standard of living for all citizens. RC&D Councils are 501(C) 3 not-for-profit corporations, and are not governmental entities, so the typical policies and constraints of local, state and federal government programs do not limit the types of issues they address or the means they use for economic development in their work areas.

RC&D Councils have a high degree of independence to carry out activities that will achieve their most important goals. RC&D Council volunteers are leaders and community stakeholders who play multiple roles and are typically involved in local government, school boards, churches and other civic activities. These leaders identify unmet needs in their communities and create solutions that work. The folks who make up an RC&D council are neighbors, and at RC&D Council meetings, they draw from their professional expertise and community connections to determine the needs of their RC&D Council areas, address those needs, and make their communities better places to live, work and play.

RC&D’s know how to blend government programs with local needs to produce results. In essence, they know how to speak the government’s language, and yours. Nationwide, over 25,000 volunteers serve on local RC&D Councils. At one time there were 375 RC&D Councils located in all 50 states, the Caribbean and the Pacific Basin serving 85 percent of all US counties and 77 percent of the total US population.

For many years, the RC&D’s were the community outreach arm of the NRCS, and funding flowed from the U.S. Department of Agriculture, through the NRCS to the RC&Ds, and then into the communities where the dirt was actually turned and a project developed. However in recent years RC&D’s have suffered budget cuts and many are scrambling just to survive.

Towns County Fire Adapted Communities partners at Firewise dedication.

Towns County Fire Adapted Communities/Firewise partners at Leisure Woods Community’s Firewise dedication. Photo credit: Tony Harkins, GFC.

RC&D Councils are a perfect fit with the Fire Adapted Communities program because both have the same purpose, which is to help local people and make life in their communities better and safer. The Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D Council covers 13 counties in the mountains of Northeast Georgia where most residents live in the wildland-urban interface. Council members are county commissioners and Soil and Water District Supervisors who, in this region, are key people needed to start a fire adapted communities project.

The Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D Council was chosen in 2013 as a pilot Fire Adapted Communities Learning Network “hub.” We centered the initial efforts in Towns County in the mountains of northeast Georgia where everybody lives in the wildland-urban interface. Towns County had three Firewise communities before we joined the FAC Learning Network, and during the first year added nine more. The goal for 2014 is to have 20 Firewise communities by year’s end, and there are already enough communities waiting to get into the program to hit that number.

We are also emphasizing outreach related to open burn permitting in an attempt to reduce the number of accidental fire starts. Towns County issued 5,235 permits last year, which is a significant number for an area with a population of 10,000. The Georgia Forestry Commission card with their burning permit contact information is one of the most popular items at our events, so people are finally getting the message that before you burn you get a permit!

The most important component of our fire adapted communities work was the creation of a nine-member Citizen’s FAC Coalition made up of six citizens and three agency representatives. The agencies, Towns County Fire Rescue, USDA Forest Service and the Georgia Forestry Commission, bring technical support and resources to the coalition. This coalition has taken ownership of the Towns County FAC program, which should keep it growing into the future. Plans are to take the lessons we learned in our first year and start other FAC programs in the surrounding counties and let the concept spread from coalition to coalition until it covers the south.

The results speak for themselves. This year Fannin County to the west has had 54 fires, Union County has had 33 and Towns with FAC has had only seven, all minor. Coincidence or luck? I don’t think so because FAC works when the citizens own it, embrace it, and live it because their lives may depend on it.

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