May 18, 2018 – The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County has played a vital role in preparing communities to be prepared for wildfires, successfully obtaining millions of dollars in grants to reduce hazardous fuels and make evacuation routes safer, and generally serving as a community “hub” for information and help on fire safety from county, state, and federal sources. Each year, the amount of grants has increased. For the past 12 years, Joanne Drummond, the Executive Director, led and built this successful program, with innovative initiatives such as the Scotch Broom Challenge, the chipping program, and a program for low-income seniors and disabled to get help clearing defensible space. She’s garnered the support of many hundreds of volunteers each year and over a thousand overall.

Drummond also has received numerous prestigious national, state, and local awards, one of them for helping neighborhoods get certified as Firewise Communities. Through her efforts, Nevada County has more Firewise Communities than any other in California and possibly the nation. Despite these accomplishments, the Fire Safe Council Board of Directors voted to not renew her contract at the April 22nd meeting. Many are asking, what happens next?

Here are some ideas for moving forward in a positive way to continue the success of the Fire Safe Council: (1) the National Cohesive Wildland Fire Management Strategy has a clearly articulated template for enabling Fire Safe Councils, governments and fire agencies to work together effectively in a collaborative way; (2) examples of best practices for Boards of Directors, including bylaws and operations, are readily available; (3) our excellent local Center for Non-Profit Leadership is available to help.

It’s important to acknowledge how we got here and how that informs our path forward, not only to preserve the good work of the Fire Safe Council but also adapt to ever-growing demands of this community. The FSC is in a critical time of growth and has some growing pains because of its success. Now is the time to clearly outline how to address this growth with a business plan, including a deliberative analysis of the work needs, the income sources available, and the levels of expertise needed to accomplish it. This is not simple with an organization that is “soft funded” (i.e., relies upon grants). Office staffing needs must be analyzed, including type of knowledge and level of expertise required to support the often-technical programs. For example, Joanne Drummond has recommended having a registered professional forester and/or a grant manager at Board meetings. These analyses do not need to take a lot of time nor be expensive, but they need to be done by volunteers with expertise in doing them.

The current Board of Directors is comprised of dedicated people with good intent, many having served tirelessly for a long time (some for more than 15 years!). Over time, the board has become increasingly populated by members of fire department boards. It’s time for a board with members who reflect a broader spectrum of the community, with representation not only from local public fire agencies but also private forest industry, land management non-profits, water and utility providers, businesses, and others with land management and fire science backgrounds. There should be a variety of ages, gender, and cultures. Should county supervisors continue to be on the board? (Federal and state agency employees are generally prohibited from being on a board.) Most importantly, newer and more open approaches are needed to recruit new board members. We propose that a small committee be formed to seek, interview, and recommend or select new board members. This committee could be led by a member of the Center for Non-Profit Leadership and include three other members representing fire services, local non-profits, and someone with land management experience.

Finally, the FSC needs bylaws that reflect current best practices, including more specific delineation of the roles and responsibilities of the Board vs the Executive Director. The board should have input on the overall budget, but not staffing. The bylaws also need to have more specific direction about committees, their delegated (or not) responsibilities, personnel, and transparent decision-making. The bylaws should specify how personnel complaints are made and addressed.

The Fire Safe Council of Nevada County plays a vital role here. This region has seen fire for thousands of years, the risk is increasing, and the need for hazard reduction is critical. It is not a question of IF fires will occur but WHEN. We need to find a path forward to ensure that not only does the Fire Safe Council make it through this tough time, but that it thrives and grows. We are very fortunate to have the resources of the Center for Non-Profit Leadership to help us. We and other leaders in the community are ready to lend our business, fire and land management experience to help.

Dr. Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman is a former Fire Safe Council Board member and retired fire scientist and land management planner from the US Forest Service. Pat Leach is the Corporate Secretary of RCD Engineering, Inc. and a Board Member (14 yrs) for North San Juan Fire Protection District.

4 replies on “Op-Ed | Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman and Pat Leach: A way forward for the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County”

  1. Trying to follow this story and provide positive input and action has been hampered by lack of overview and knowledge by interested members of the public. It is very hard to act when one is in the dark, with incomplete knowledge and rumors flying. And when the major players have not been able to clarify things, for legal and other reasons. So it is refreshing when someone who actually knows a great deal about the situation and who has personal experience and an overview speaks out.

    This is a well thought out set of proposals, in my opinion. And the tone is neutral—though the practical effects would be to produce huge changes in the structure and operation of the Fire Safe Council. It will be interesting to see if the present board can come to its senses and adopt these recommendations.

    The Board of FSCNC has its next meeting at 10 a.m. at the Helling Library in NC. I for one will be there, and I hope other interested members of the public can make it too. I would suggest that studying the previous Board of Directors Meeting Packet:
    … in advance would be helpful.

    O.K., Dr. Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman is neutral, and that is appropriate, but I’m not neutral, I’m darn angry. The days are passing quickly, and it seems to me that it is more and more unlikely that Joanne Drummond will renew her contract with FSCNC. Why would she, the board has broken all trust with her, and therefore with the public who have benefitted immeasurably from her work over the last 12 years. Those members of the board who went along with the vote to NOT renew her contract, however long their service and however well–intentioned they are, should consider resigning. And the core group who initiated the decision to NOT renew should definitely go, for all our sakes.

    In my opinion, this is an emergency, and although Dr. Jo Ann Fites-Kaufman’s proposals are vital for the health and viability of FSCNC in the medium to long term, they do not address the short–term needs of the community, that is, for the upcoming fire season which starts NOW.

    Maybe a miracle will occur, and the Board will immediately find a Joanne Drummond clone who can somehow fill her shoes from Day One. But we can’t depend on miracles. And why would we trust the judgement of those who made these huge mistakes, anyway? And let us say that the miracle occurs, why would anyone with intelligence and a sense of self–worth want the position, knowing this history and that the very same folks were still in charge?

    In my opinion, not only do we need a fresh start, but it needs to be a public fresh start. New faces, new ideas, new outlook. But right NOW, what are we going to do in this new fire season, between NOW and December?

    In my Firewise Community, we have good people, and we are renting our own chipper to deal with the AmeriCorps slash piles, and will continue our efforts to make our corner of the county safer. No doubt other Firewise Communities will do the same. But the ‘trainee’ FWCs are left in the lurch. There is no Joanne who has the ‘big picture’, who can co–ordinate the efforts, who can find grant money, who can motivate volunteers and the public, who can keep two steps ahead of the game. What happens now?

    Please come to the meeting, and maybe we can see where we stand, and get some information and exchange ideas about the immediate future.

  2. Jo Ann and Pat Leach’s article (both of whom are experts in wildfire and land/forest issues and management, as well as having extensive experience as board members ) is like a breath of fresh air in a very smokey room. Many of us within the Firewise Communities, created by the Fire Safe Council under Joanne Drummond’s leadership and expertise, have been searching for practical solutions/resolutions to this disturbing situation when many of the facts are simply not available to us.
    I hope the FSC Board of Directors is open to moving forward by adopting Jo Ann’s and Pat’s approaches. It is important that those of us within our Firewise Communities and the larger Grass Valley and Nevada City communities speak out publicly in favor of the Fire Safe Council adopting these necessary changes within their Board of Directors and the Executive Committee. The FSC needs to adapt to the current times within our growing and changing county by becoming a top notch non-profit organization with bylaws and practices that reflect our community needs and diversity. The wildfires of last year should be a major wake-up call to all of us that business as usual in relation to wildfire prevention and safety is no longer possible and that we need the best possible leadership and wide spread community support and action to avert a Santa Rosa fire here in our area. If there is a way forward that includes Joanne Drummond’s restoration as Executive Director, that would be in the best interest and safety of our community, as finding anyone else with her knowledge, experience, energy and ability to unite volunteers will be very, very difficult and unlikely.

  3. Oops! Next FSCNC meeting is next Thursday, 24th May, 10 a.m. at the Helling Library…

  4. I served on the FSC board for 19 years until I resigned this past February when I moved out of Nevada County. I was, and continue to be, Joanne’s biggest supporter. No one could have been more surprised than me when I read about the recent events. I watched the Council grow into the best one in the State if not the country. Joanne deserves almost all the credit. I was also proud to serve with my fellow directors on the board who worked hard to fulfill our mission.
    It seems that many nonprofit organizations face the same problems… lack of funds and the inability to have all directors actively participate.
    The underlying problem with our organization was the inability to fund and retain proper office staff to support Joanne. Joanne would work 60-80 hours per week trying to handle all her duties while also planning and working community activities and fundraising events.
    Our board mishandled a valuable employee’s comp package a few years ago and we lost Joanne’s “right hand man”. We’ve struggled ever since trying to fill the void.
    I can’t imagine how the Council can continue on it’s current path without Joanne at the helm. I will attend the next board meeting to see if it’s even a possibility.
    The work the FSC provides to the county is vital to it’s safety.
    If Joanne returns we need the community’s financial support to continue our mission. Jeff Dunning

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