The mission of the local Fire Safe Council is quite simple: “We are dedicated to making Nevada County safer from catastrophic wildfire through fire safety projects and education.” Recently, the work has been overshadowed by several former employees, contractors and concerned members of the public raising questions about the financial viability, staffing and management of the organization.

The concerns were shared with Nevada County who is a pass-through agency for the Fire Safe Council’s largest project to date, the Ponderosa Fuel break.

Questions and concerns

In a letter sent to the FSC on June 23rd, county officials listed concerns raised in a June 14th letter to the FSC by attorney Sue McGuire on behalf of Roby Pracht and R.L Accounting & Consulting. Pracht’s contract was terminated in January of 2021.

The attorney’s letter cited concerns about “Fire Safe Continuing Financial Losses,” “The Ponderosa Project Overage” and provided background on a variety of issues – including the FSC using their own equipment, paid for by Nevada County and then billing the county for the service. Retirement plan inequities – with some employees being offered the plan and others not – OSHA and prevailing wage concerns.

Nevada County, in their letter, stated “The County is not expressing any opinion related to any concerns brought to our attention.” However, the county’s Auditor will review documents requested in the letter because “The concerns expressed are under the purview and governance of the Fire Safe Council Board, however the County does have a duty to oversee the funds given to, and the contracts that we have with, the Fire Safe Council (FSC).”

Nevada County’s letter concludes with “The County does not have any concerns of the Fire Safe Council meeting grant deliverables. The County views the Fire Safe Council as a critical and valued partner in preparing our community for wildfire.”

No more juveniles operating equipment

One of the concerns raised was minors working on projects – and allegedly sometimes drinking on the job. We asked Executive Director Jamie Jones about this specific issue. Her response, provided via email, reads:

In spring/summer of 2020 we opted to have all our existing safety policies and OSHA compliance areas reviewed by an independent safety officer. We invited the Safety Officer in to review all existing documents, postings, procedures, equipment, etc. They also completed interviews with supervisors and staff and completed field checks. We continued throughout the 2020 year with a full revision to our safety plan and held several safety trainings and OSHA compliance sessions.

“We did have several workers under the age of 18 that were brought on as temporary employees to help fill the gaps in green waste staffing. During green waste, none of these individuals held positions that required use feeding the chippers or using chain saws. Once green waste wrapped up, a few inquired about staying on and did so briefly. The concern was brought to the office about their ability to work with equipment. After researching the topic and inquiring with the schools, child labor law handbook, other agencies, and organizations with similar programs, we identified that in the case of 16 and 17-year-olds there was a student-learner exception, they may work with equipment within this program. Fire Safe Council had already been working with the local high schools “Work Experience Program”, on other student opportunities and started the process of adding this to our programs. We had hoped to offer a student learner program similar to what allows underage interns in forestry programs and volunteer firefighter programs to offer opportunities to high school aged kids. Unfortunately, COVID’s impacts on the schools and teachers did not allow this to timely be executed. When the program did not materialize as excepted, we made the required changes.  In order to ensure we stayed in compliance, we have a firm policy not to allow underage workers to be near or operate equipment. There are still however positions that work in conjunction with the crews and do not require use of equipment. As of now, though there are not any underage team members working on the field crews.”

Jamie Jones, FSC Executive Director via email

Course correction is in the works, according to Executive Director Jones

Asked about structural deficiencies identified by the FSC’s auditors and concerns raised by Nevada County, Jones provided this lengthy explanation of the organization’s unique status and expressed confidence changes would be made if warranted.

“It is a delicate balance operating as a non-profit in this arena. We do not quite fit any one organizational type. We are not a public agency, or fire district. We also do not fall within your typical non-profit or Fire Safe Councils in the state. Our Fire Safe Council is currently the largest in the state. Our Firewise Program remains number one per capita in not just the state but the nation.  Our funding currently is grant contingent and that comes with a plethora of fiduciary requirements. To maintain these funding sources, we voluntarily audit our organization. Beyond that we audit our individual grants with the grantors and contracts with the County of Nevada for services we provide. Our largest struggle as an organization is finding the funding mechanisms that allow us to staff crucial positions that keep our organization fluid and transparent. Grants may come in high dollar amounts for projects specific purposes, but this does not always correlate to the true costs to maintain staff to ensure we continue stay competitive amongst grant opportunities and execute programs. Additionally, it remains very difficult to execute programs in the community that are not specifically paid for by grants. The programs and services we bring to the community on a county wide level, without sustainable funding is nothing short of a miracle. It has taken years of dedicated board members, engaged stakeholders, previous leadership, passionate staff, an army of volunteers, and a proactive community to build the foundation for what we bring to the community today. But the bottom line is we still have more work to do. Wildfire Preparedness and Fire Resiliency continues to be the most relevant concern in California. At the end of the day, fire is indiscriminatory, it impacts each and everyone of us. We must continue to work together as a community to find solutions that bring sustainable funding mechanisms to continue to prepare and protect our community. Fire Safe Councils board and staff have worked diligently to create a culture of inclusivity, honesty, and transparency. If there is something we do not have quite right, I have full confidence in this team, that we will do everything we can to make sure it is corrected if necessary.”

Jones was awarded a new interim contract to serve as Executive Director of the organization at the July special meeting. The salary and benefits were discussed at the last meeting and the contract was approved by a majority vote with only Director Trygg voting No.

Board training – a valuable tool for any organization

The FSC’s board meetings are open to the public and also broadcast via Zoom on the day of the meeting. The four-person Executive Finance Committee, composed of Chairman Don Thane, Vice-Chairman Rick Nolle, Secretary Warren Know and Treasurer David Walker and Directors Akan Doerr, Steve Eubanks, Sue Hoek (assigned by the BOS), Eric Trygg, Hank Weston and Pete Williams are at varying degrees of familiarity with the rules governing the board.

They are not subject to the Brown Act, however a conflict of interest policy and conduct guidelines were routinely included in the board packet until the end of 2020.

A refresher course regarding decorum and other details might benefit some board members and is generally regarded as a valuable process tool.

Answers by August

The August board meeting will address one former employee’s request for a formal response to her email sent months ago.

If the FSC’s auditor report and the response to Nevada County’s letter are finalized, they will be released to the public, according to Jones.

Transparent processes and procedures provide dual benefits – the organization can ascertain at any time what their financial/management position is and the public can be confident grants and donations are managed appropriately by qualified staff and board members.

Until the external audits by both the FSC’s auditor, and independently by Nevada County’s Auditor are complete, it’s too early to draw definitive conclusions. We will keep our readers appraised of any updates provided.