Fuel reduction funds pulled just before Station fire

Fire Councils are doing a great deal of good work around the country towards educating residents about reducing hazards to make their homes more fire resistant, but the Councils in California apparently are much more hands on, distributing money to contractors to actually remove vegetation.

Here is an excerpt from an article in the Modesto Bee:

Months before a wildfire burned 280 square miles at the edge of Los Angeles, a little-known group was awarded a $178,000 grant to clear flammable brush and tree limbs to protect a mountain neighborhood in the Angeles National Forest.

The work proposed for 90 acres in Big Tujunga Canyon was never done, and the grant was rescinded two days before the massive blaze ignited Aug. 26. Sixty homes were burned in the rugged canyon, by far the greatest concentration of property damage in the huge wildfire.

The ferocity of the fire makes it difficult to say how many homes, if any, might have been spared if the work had been completed. But failure to do the job offers a glimpse into a quasi-public system that provides little transparency while distributing millions of taxpayer dollars for fire protection on private property.

The grant came through the California Fire Safe Council Inc., a nonprofit organization that funneled $13.5 million in 2009 to groups and municipalities for fire prevention and safety projects. Most of the money comes from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.

It’s not clear when the council recognized a problem with the Big Tujunga project, but the grant languished for months. No money ever changed hands before it was pulled back.

“The very best use of fire protection money would have been to clear brush in Big Tujunga Canyon – that’s where we lost the homes,” said U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who questioned why a nonprofit group was needed to steer taxpayer dollars to local groups.

As a nonprofit, it is not subject to open government laws even though much of its funding comes from the government.

“When the federal government wants to build a road, you hire a private sector company to build a road, you don’t establish a statewide nonprofit,” Sherman said. “I don’t know why you would need all these intermediary agencies. … It ought to be transparent, and not just with regard to the canyon but their whole setup.”

Layers of review for each grant include a committee with representatives from federal agencies that makes recommendations to the council. One of the factors considered is a group’s history in fire safety projects and ability to complete the job.

In the case of Big Tujunga, the grant was awarded to a group headed by Ben Furia Means, a fitness trainer, massage therapist and recording engineer with no apparent background in fire safety work.
Means’ group, the Big Tujunga Fire Safe Council, is one of dozens of local councils established around the state that pursue such grants.

Contacted by e-mail, Means did not respond to repeated requests to explain what went awry with the grant. His phone was out of service – his home was among those lost in the fire.

“It is very unfortunate that this much damage occurred,” Means wrote.

Thanks Zachary

Typos, let us know HERE, and specify which article. Please read the commenting rules before you post a comment.