Grassroots Efforts Leads to Towns County WUI Success

Wildland fire in our own backyards is something most of us think will never happen, but it only takes one match, hot ashes dumped in the yard or a bonfire that we were sure was out to bring a disaster right under our porch and into our living room. Grassroots leadership for the Ready, Set, Go! (RSG) Program, Fire Adapted Communities (FAC) andFirewise is key to successful wildland-fire education: people tend to listen to their peers.

The Towns County, Ga., Firewise program started in 2008 during an 800-acre fire on Cedar Knob Mountain. After that fire, local, state and federal agencies began working with community members to get them involved at a grassroots level. They did this by telling them the wildland-urban interface story.

In 2013, the Towns County FAC Citizens Coalition took ownership of RSG and FAC programs and developed the grassroots network and leadership to keep the programs growing. The coalition consists of six citizens and three agency representatives, all dedicated to wildland-fire safety and education. Supporting the coalition is an ex-officio group that provides technical expertise, resources and funds when needed.

Those who started RSG/FAC in Towns County realized they were the only ones pushing the issues; if they quit pushing, the momentum would roll to a stop and no one would notice. They gave ownership of the programs to the citizens they were designed to protect, thus keep the programs moving forward.

As control of Towns' RSG and FAC programs passes to the coalition, the development team will move to surrounding areas. They'll take the lessons learned in Towns to jumpstart new fire-adapted communities with RSG through peer-to-peer contacts, which is what the FAC Learning Network is all about.

The U.S. Forest Service owns 52% of the land in Towns County, so everyone here lives in the wildland-urban interface, creating a major risk for the residents from wildfire. The most important component of FAC in this community and others like it is Ready, Set, Go! If a wildland fire approaches and the residents and emergency responders don't have an evacuation plan in place, all other FAC components become useless.

The RSG Program ties in well to the existing Towns County Firewise program because many of our mountain communities have narrow roads and usually just one entrance. Ingress and egress are critical issues here and a large-scale evacuation is almost impossible, making Ready, Set, Go! extremely important to our residents and emergency responders.

Last spring, the Chestatee/Chattahoochee RC&D Council was awarded a national FAC grant to fund program development in Towns County; once completed, Chest/Chatt will be the southeast FAC hub and will spread the concept to other communities. Between the 2008 fire and spring 2013, Towns signed up only three Firewise Communities, but since the council received the grant, nine more communities have been added in just 10 months. Grant funds were combined with matching funds to pay for salaries, travel and needed supplies and to have personnel attend training on new RSG/FAC methods and to share what was learned during the development process.

Effective public outreach includes presenting the RSG, FAC and Firewise message through local media outlets when opportunities arise. Towns County is rural and the most effective channels to reach our audience are through the weekly newspaper, morning radio talk show and electronic signs at businesses.

Weekly columns are published in the two local newspapers, usually about wildland fire and the efforts to help keep residents safe from the risks of living in the WUI; the papers often put special events on their front pages. Recent front-page events include appearances by Smokey Bear at the local high school and college basketball games. During halftime, Smokey circled the arenas, waving to the crowds and posing for pictures with cheerleaders and kids of all ages.

The local morning radio talk show also regularly invites us to discuss our RSG/FAC/Firewise projects for its 60,000 listeners in a 35-mile area.

In addition, collaboration with our local electric utility, Blue Ridge Mountain EMC, which provides power to 50,000 local residents, has proven to be one of our best methods of spreading the FAC and RSG messages. Field personnel, who are frequently in contact with local households, are trained to promote RSG, FAC and Firewise methods and procedures—a tremendous multiplier of our resources.

A successful wildland-fire safety and education program isn't easy to start. People tend to ignore risks near their homes until smoke and embers are blowing over the ridge—and then it's too late. A program must have its own spark and must be properly fueled; once ignited, it will spread on its own through grassroots channels.

To make all this happen, someone must lead the effort.

Someone who is known and trusted in the community. Someone who knows and can work with local, state and federal agencies. Someone who's recognizable, dedicated and stubborn enough to keep pushing the issue even when people question the free programs that can save their property, their livelihoods and maybe even their lives. Most of all, someone who'll never give up.

Somebody's life may depend on it!

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