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Anatomy of a Volunteer Project

LAKE COUNTY, CA (September 3, 2019)
“We wanted to get people on the same page.  People are not always working on the same projects, there are different economic boundaries in the communities.  If a millionaire loses a $750,000 home [to a wildfire], does that mean more than someone losing their rental?  No.”

The recent “1,000 Hands to Protect Lake County Homes” volunteer project, spearheaded by District 5 Supervisor, Rob Brown, activated and aligned community members to protect Lake County homes from the threat of wildfire.  In about three hours’ time, 300 volunteers cleared brush from six miles of roadside in the Soda Bay corridor.

At the Board of Supervisors’ Tuesday, August 20 meeting, District 2 Supervisor and 1,000 Hands volunteer, Bruno Sabatier, remarked, “The visual was really impressive.  It was absolutely inspiring to see the community come together like that… to see how many people were out there, how much vegetation had been chopped down.”

What elements made the project possible?  What lessons can others apply, in the ongoing effort to strengthen Lake County’s communities?

Lesson #1: Frame the Request Well – “If 260 people do 100 feet, we’re done.”
Following four fire seasons that claimed 60% of our landscape, the destruction wildfire can bring is not an abstraction to Lake County residents; we have a visceral response when we get a text from 888-777.  

Nearly all of us have been evacuated from our homes, most for days at a time.  We have experienced the sort of eerie clarity that comes when looking around our living rooms, wondering whether we are seeing possessions and pictures for the last time.

Some nights, particularly when the weather is hot, the wind is blowing, or there is a hint of something in the air that may be smoke, many of us find it hard to sleep.

Giving in to fear, waiting for the next disaster to come, just isn’t an option, so what begins as startled sleeplessness quickly gives way to thoughts of what can be done to keep our neighborhoods and communities fire safe.

For Supervisor Brown, one such sleepless night surfaced the 1,000 Hands concept: engage Lake County residents on fire resiliency, give residents a sense of control, and bring communities together, by inviting them to clear brush along a particularly vulnerable stretch of Lake County roadside.

The four Lake County subdivisions collectively known as, “The Rivieras,” and the neighboring Konocti Bay area, are home to 12,000 of Lake County’s 65,000 residents, and the terrain is challenging.  This combination makes controlling wildfire fuel loads essential; taking steps to remove roadside vegetation in this region had the power to reduce the risk to thousands of lives.

From the outset, Brown understood the need to frame the project in terms potential volunteers could easily understand.  He wheel walked the entire project area, and determined it totaled 26,000 feet:

“I told people, ‘If 260 people do 100 feet, we’re done.’  The real key was putting the goal in perspective.”  When Brown met with volunteer leaders, he brought along maps, or had them visit the physical area that would be their responsibility; people needed to see the project, and imagine it completed.

Lesson #2: Overcome Initial Objections – “You need to ask people’s concerns.”
Anyone who has ever introduced a new idea has heard a litany of reasons their idea was clumsily conceived.  It is much easier to sink a ship than it is to build one, and initial objections can entirely miss the target, but still shake the shipbuilder and send the project off course.

Overcoming objections often has as much to do with listening, and seeking to understand, as it does making your case:

“I’m not much of a committee guy, but you need to ask people’s concerns.  After the Golf Fire [a still-very-recent wildfire event in the region the 1,000 Hands project targeted], [a local official] called, and thought we should cancel.  I asked their concerns, and [it turned out they were] worried someone would set a chainsaw down and start a fire.  I was able to [clarify] no one would be using a chainsaw.”

“Another person [a property owner in one of the Riviera communities] sent out an email [expressing strong concerns].  ‘This is absurd!’  That sort of thing.  I got a hold of them, asked their concerns and they became a [key contributor].”

When Saturday, August 17, rolled around, there were fire chiefs and public agency leaders, senior citizens and County Supervisors dressed in blue jeans and blending into the crowd.  Many of them would readily admit, when first raised, the idea seemed a bit ambitious.  Yet, there they all were, and the piles of brush continued to mount as the moments wore on.

Lesson #3: Be Authentic – “Get in there, be willing to do it yourself.”
Accomplishing something really big demands leaders hold their own ideas loosely, and create space for others to shape their thinking and make meaningful changes.  The best leaders seek out people with differing and complementary skill sets.

Getting the right people to say “Yes” is one the basic elements of any successful project, and those decisions can be informed by a lot of history; credibility matters.  When inviting participation, it is important to consider a basic question:
Is this a request people will expect to receive from me, or will this come out of left field?

Put differently, have your past actions prepared others for the request you are making?

Some of those who became leaders in the 1,000 Hands project were there in 2015, when Supervisor Brown helped put together community meetings in the wake of the Valley Fire, and reassured people who had lost everything, “We’re not leaving until your questions have been answered.”

“Those community meetings were the first time I gave out my cell phone number [to the public].  I got a lot of calls, and people were appreciative of the help, [especially] working through the permit process.”  

Some of those permit processes extended over months, even years, as property owners worked to secure insurance reimbursements, and comply with the latest State building codes.  Brown continued to field the calls, and was looked to as an authority as Lake County navigated disaster after disaster.

In early 2019, Brown helped to articulate the case for a new funding stream to offer enhanced road maintenance for wildfire mitigation in the Riviera communities most directly served by 1,000 Hands; community leaders, Homeowners Associations and residents banded together, and voted by strong margins to form multiple Zones of Benefit.

The very weekend of the 1,000 Hands Project, he facilitated a 500 fire extinguisher giveaway, supported by extraordinary contributions from the Lake County Wine Alliance and Ukiah Oxygen.  Brown had noticed a subtle shift in focus among community stakeholders, toward proactive efforts to prevent the next disaster.  The giveaway took place at Riviera Elementary, with help from Middletown Rotary.

People with real expertise, from State and local fire agencies, the County’s Department of Public Works, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) and others, were willing to lend their hard-won experience to 1,000 Hands, because the call to action was credible.  300 people were happy to show up at 6am on a Saturday, and the project got done ahead of schedule, and the final scope exceeded the initial plan.  Many, residents and officials, alike, had worked with Brown before.

“You have to get in there, and be willing to do it yourself,” emphasizes Brown.

“Agencies can be helpful, but you have to [cultivate relationships] and know which ones to call; you need specific contacts.  It took years [of relationship building] to get BLM to [prioritize] the Black Forest, but now they’re finishing up.”

Lesson #4: Leadership Matters – “They want someone to step up and lead.”
Leadership is about recognition; knowing when to be strong, and when to empower others, when to push through, and when to step back.

Seminal management thinker Peter Drucker taught that effective leaders first manage themselves; we have to understand and amplify our strengths, and encourage others to shine so our limitations don’t become the project’s (or organization’s) limitations.  No one can have every answer, and serving as leader can’t mean taking direct control of everything – it doesn’t work.

Vision is important, but roles and responsibilities are handled by real people.  The energies of individuals and groups require direction to find focused application.  People flourish when their role is a well-fitting suit of clothes, and they have authority to use their heads and speak in the first person.

“Leading up to 1,000 Hands, [I worked to] make the sections were manageable; broke it down,” shares Brown.  “[All of the organizations and people] worked well together, and Public Works [DPW] was a major player.”

“Closing down a section of road for four hours is a big deal, especially working without pilot cars and flag men.  DPW staff, especially [DPW Area Supervisor] Ed Pepper, really made things work.  We staged brush in shoulder areas, and made calls when areas were clear enough to pick up brush and haul it to dump sites.  The County allowing dumping [of the debris] at our Green Waste site was huge.”

Anyone can be assigned to a high responsibility role, but being a leader is different.  Groups work better together when the leader has a track record of service:

“People are kind and appreciative, and they want someone to step up and lead.  I have a history of successful projects, and have spent a lot of time with people, so they look to me; I’ve been able to motivate people.  Getting to that point took a long time,” acknowledges Brown.

Lesson #5: Time it Right – “It’s difficult to get people to think about fire safety in May, when the ground is wet.”
1,000 Hands benefitted from the confluence of many factors, among them:
• Four years of repeated disaster;
• A prominent leader that had been central to numerous wildfire-related efforts and built relationships with and cultivated contacts at State and Federal agencies and other key entities over a period of decades;
• Networks of local influencers that had successfully passed Benefit Zone measures just months earlier;
• Active and engaged communities and Homeowners Associations that were already taking other steps to mitigate fire risk when the call came; and
• Perspective, leant by the Golf Fire – it could have been so much worse were fewer assets immediately available to respond.

Notes Brown, “Right now, with any level of smoke in air, people are sensitive.  It’s difficult to get people to think about fire safety in May, when the ground is wet.”  

“There were people there from around the lake; one [individual] noted they could see the hill [they were working on] from their house.  A lot of people living in the Riviera moved there from Cobb; they lost homes in the Valley Fire.  This project gave them a sense of control, rather than just waiting.  Now, other communities [have a model] to do their own sections.”

What could have been done differently?
“This was the first effort of its kind, and we all learned a lot,” shares Brown.  

“The Press Releases and social media outreach we developed worked well, and LakeCoNews’ coverage helped get people out, but we could have engaged volunteer coordinators earlier on.  Also, the HOAs pushed out County blurbs, but with more time, they could have had something more particular to their communities, ‘We need two people on Chippewa South and two on Tenaya.’”

“In the future, we could take it in even smaller chunks, on different weekends.  That would [reduce or eliminate the need to have] County crews out there.”

What surprised Supervisor Brown most about 1,000 Hands?
“I was surprised how quickly the job got done.  I had figured we would stop at 10, but I talked to Ed Pepper, and he asked if there was any way to stop at 9:30, so [DPW] crews would have some time to clear brush before the road was reopened to traffic.”

“On a project like this one, you really only see your own section.  I saw 8:45 on the clock, and went to the other end of my section.  One guy, from Buckingham, said, ‘I’ll weed eat to that car, and then I’m done.’  He had twenty feet left.  It turned out the whole project was almost done.”

“The work they did was incredible.  I didn’t expect [the volunteers] to rake the pine needles, rake the grass; it was all raked!”

“9:00 came, and we were done.  People were so happy.”


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