Twenty-four large fires were burning in the West earlier this summer, thousands of residents were evacuated from their homes, media video showed houses burning to the ground, and the airwaves were filled with public service announcements and interviews imploring homeowners to increase protection of their property and lives. The ever-dangerous fire season 2013 is well underway. However, something is missing. A critical ally in the mission to protect homes and communities from the devastation of wildfire is noticeably absent. One of this nation’s most effective community protection organizations, the Nevada Fire Safe Council, is nowhere to be seen. What happened?
Founded in 1999, The Nevada Fire Safe Council was created with the enthusiastic support of federal, state, and local fire services after agency attempts to bring citizens into a working partnership to achieve enhanced community and firefighter safety had failed. For over a decade the Nevada Fire Safe Council functioned statewide, including the Lake Tahoe Basin, to reduce the danger and increase protection for communities located in high wildfire threat areas. At its peak the Council consisted of over 5,000 members organized into 135 local community action groups focused on citizen awareness and wildfire threat reduction. The Council assisted in the conduct of homeowner education and administered the award and management of nearly $21 million committed to hazardous fuel reduction and the creation of community fuel breaks where firefighters could aggressively, but safely fight the flames. In national and international conferences and professional meetings the Nevada Fire Safe Council was repeatedly hailed as the model for grass roots, citizen participation and unparalleled accomplishment in the area of community protection.
In the summer of 2011 a federal Inspector General’s investigation into a fallacious and unfounded complaint regarding bidding practices, revealed missteps in the Council’s procedures regarding the administration of grant funds. Upon notification of the grant fund mismanagement, the Council’s volunteer Board of Directors took immediate action to implement policy and procedural changes that addressed the oversight and financial control deficiencies. Relentless follow-up investigations involving no less than 15 federal agents working over a year and a half rifled through every financial document, contract, report and file. During this extended time the Council’s committed citizen volunteers responded to every question, fulfilled every demand for information and documentation, and remained open and honest in every written and verbal communication. The results of repeated, redundant, intensive inquiries failed to reveal any evidence of fraud or embezzlement but rather repetitiously revealed a lack of adherence to the complexity of federal rules and procedures. Every dollar received by the Council was spent to advance the mission of community protection however, tracking and accounting procedures were deemed to be out of compliance.
In response to the initiation of the investigations, both the Nevada State office of the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and the US Forest Service office at Lake Tahoe refused to honor approved grants and release funds required to support the operating expenses of the Council or to pay contractors holding legitimate invoices for priority work completed. The outcome was slow financial starvation with the filing of bankruptcy as the coup-de-grace for the Fire Safe Council. The refusal to allow the transfer of funds from approved grants also stranded 51 hazardous fuel treatment contractors with $3.4 million in unpaid and uncollectable debt. Many of these contractors represent small family owned companies that in turn, were forced into bankruptcy. Additional unpaid invoices were held by fire districts that had no choice but to reduce firefighting capacity and to this day suffer financial hardship.
Despite repeated statements of support and promises to find solutions, both the BLM and the US Forest Service failed to honor their commitments to preserve the council and more importantly the effective network of community leaders and dedicated citizen volunteers. Worse, they refused to pay for the critical work already completed even though there continues to be sufficient funds in approved grants to cover the charges awaiting payment. All of this in the face of findings by the Inspector General’s office that inadequate over sight and a lack of proper controls on the part of the federal agencies actually facilitated the errors and made the agencies complicit in the failings of the Council. It is obvious that reasonable people with a common mission to protect communities from the unimaginable consequences of raging wildfire could have reached a workable solution that would have served the interest of all concerned. Bankruptcy proceeding are now stalled after incessant delays and the prospects of ever reaching a resolution are remote at best. Appeals to Nevada’s congressional delegation were received with a sympathetic ear but resultant agency contact requesting assistance was rebuffed by intractable policies, rules, positions and attitudes. It is very sad that the Gordian knot consisting of bureaucratic self-interest, face saving, and a tortuous web of rules and regulations robbed officials of their ingenuity and took precedent over the protection of lives and property. Nevada has lost its highly acclaimed and singularly successful grass roots preemptive firefighting entity. For a small fraction of the money committed to fighting fire in concert with willing public servants dedicated to finding a solution, this tragic outcome could have been averted. Evidently the Nevada Fire Safe Council’s extraordinary record of success was not deemed worthy of an effort to untie the knot.
Elwood Miller was the founding executive director of the Fire Safe Council from January 2002 until April 2005.