By Lorraine Jewett
Nevada County has millions of federal grant dollars available to hire work crews to create defensible space at hundreds of homes, all at no cost to homeowners or renters.
The county just needs people to apply.
“Work has been completed on 27 properties, 35 parcels are awaiting work to begin, another 226 are in the application and review stage, and we have spaces for 550 more people to apply,” said Nevada County Office of Emergency Services (OES) analyst Alex Keeble-Toll.
“We will walk you through the entire application process. We will even come to your home to help fill out and submit the application,” said Jamie Jones, executive director of the Fire Safe Council of Nevada County (FSC), the county’s partner in the defensible space project.
The FEMA grants total $5,237,297. The county and Fire Safe Council’s combined 25% match equals $1,309,324, which brings the total project value to $6,546,621.
That money pays for labor and equipment needed to create defensible space on properties whose owners or renters meet at least one of three criteria: 65 or over, disabled, and/or low income.
The deadline to apply is Feb. 28.
One Property Owner’s Story
Wren Simmonds is delighted with the land-clearing work completed at her Rough & Ready home.
“I’m not disabled, but some of the work was beyond my capacity,” said Simmonds, who is elderly, has vision problems, and lives on a fixed income. “There were trees that needed to be limbed that were covered with vines.”
Simmonds remembers when the work crew arrived.
“They piled out of their trucks, worked like crazy, and came back to do it again the next day,” says Simmonds, who so appreciated the workers’ efforts that she made Cornish pasties for them. “They were very polite and helpful, and they didn’t charge me anything.”
Much of Simmonds’ nearly seven-acre property, on which she tends goats and chickens, is on a relatively steep slope. Now that the hillside behind her home is cleared, Simmonds says she can keep up with the ongoing chore of clearing away pine needles.
“That I can do myself.”
How It Works
The Fire Safe Council conducts public outreach, recruits applicants, pre-qualifies them, and ultimately provides field crews that do the work.
The county’s Office of Emergency Services manages the grants, handles property pre- and post-inspections, and sends applications to FEMA for review.
“Because these funds are federal, completing environmental and historic preservation compliance review before starting the work is mandatory,” said Keeble-Toll. “This can take up to a year as FEMA checks for archeological, historical, mining, Native American sites, or something that might prevent the work.”
No Nevada County applicants have been denied by FEMA, because anything that might preclude the work likely would have been discovered when homes were built.
Both FSC and OES are in a hiring phase as the program gathers momentum.
“We have 37 employees,” Jones said, “and we plan to hire another two 20-person crews.”
The county has two inspectors dedicated to the program, and is hiring two more.
“Both FSC and OES have been ramping up efforts to get our pieces of the puzzle assembled as quickly as possible, but we’re respectful of the due diligence and the time it takes FEMA to complete its work,” said Keeble-Toll. “Timelines can be frustratingly long, but we’re hopeful property owners can be patient.”
The program was recently opened to renters as well as property owners.
“In addition to property owners, we can also provide services to qualified renters with property owner permissions,” Jones said. “This allows us to work with mobile home parks. Currently, we are going through the list of applicants who might be newly eligible and reaching out to them. We still have room to provide services to more people.”
Qualified properties are assigned treatment plans with up to 26 tasks to be completed. The goal, if property line boundaries, terrain and other factors permit, is creating 100 feet of defensible around the home.
“Every parcel needs something different, much of it manual labor,” said Jones. “A typical project includes ladder fuel removal, blackberry removal, limbing trees, and then hauling it all away or chipping it. We have a masticator on order that should arrive in late spring.”
Scope of the Project
With hundreds of thousands of properties in the unincorporated and incorporated areas of Nevada County, the 837 parcels to be treated before the program’s end are a small percentage – but they represent a significant opportunity.
“We are tackling this from the ground up, supporting stewardship of individual private property for folks most vulnerable,” explained Keeble-Toll. “These are the people least likely to have the resources to do this kind of work. In a wildfire, they also potentially have the most to lose because they have the least resources to rebuild.”
United Way of Nevada County made a $24,000 match grant to the program, which will allow up to $72,000 of the FEMA funds to be used to hire highly-skilled tree removal companies. Hazard tree removal is outside the scope of FSC work crews.
“Tree mortality due to bark beetle, combined with drought and storms, is a huge concern,” says Keeble-Toll. “We’re taking advantage of every opportunity we can to help folks address this.”
Meanwhile, parcels scattered across the county are one by one being brought into compliance with the county’s defensible space standards.
“I’m asked, ‘Wouldn’t it be smarter to do all homes in one specific area?’ such as a neighborhood or community,” said Keeble-Toll. “From an equity perspective, that doesn’t work. The intent is to provide services to the people least likely to be able to do it themselves.”
She says the current project – the “Private Property Scale” - is the focal point of a bigger picture with multiple layers or “scales.”
At the “Community Scale,” strategies include improving ingress and egress routes so residents can escape and first responders can get where they need to be. At the “Landscape Scale,” Keeble-Toll envisions treatment projects that help make fire-safe – or at least fire-resistant – swaths of land from 800 to 1,000 acres.
“Defensible space work for individual homes plays into the holistic vision of what we need to be doing at all levels,” she said. “Partnership is what makes this possible – between the county and Fire Safe Council – and the residents who are taking advantage of this opportunity.”
“Every resident who thinks they might qualify based on age, disability, or income should get in touch with us right away,” added Jones.
BY THE NUMBERS
Total project: $6,546,621
Properties to be treated: 837
Application Deadline: Feb. 28, 2023
Work started: September 2022
Estimated completion: June 2025
Kate Benton, Program Outreach Coordinator
Lorraine Jewett is a freelance writer who lives in Nevada County and can be reached at LorraineJewettWrites@gmail.com. This is part of a series of articles on behalf of Nevada County examining county services.