How the North Bay Forest Improvement Program Mitigates Wildfire Risks with Molly Curley O’Brien
To just have fire experts talk about resilience is not going to create a resilient project and so it’s a good thing to have folks to be part of the conversation. We do not know the full scope of what’s needed to get done. And together, we can figure it out.” -Molly Curley O’Brien
While forest landowners play a critical role in mitigating wildfire, they often face challenges that make this difficult.
For instance, many are not sure how to get started even if they want to start managing their lands for wildfire protection. They may feel overwhelmed by the task of preparing their land for wildfire prevention and mitigation efforts. They may lack knowledge on how to mitigate wildfires safely and effectively or the access to funding mitigation efforts.
That’s why, in an effort to provide a solution to these problems, After the Fire has launched its North Bay Forest Improvement Program/NBFI with the leadership of the Director of Grants and Government Programs for ATF, Molly Curley O’Brien. NBFIP is an initiative to help landowners get compensated for work they perform on their forested lands.
This week, Jennifer and Molly discuss more about NBFIP, how it came to be, and why this initiative is crucial in fire mitigation efforts. They also talk about the importance of building collective resilience, how to help our technical experts, how innovation is tied to resilience, and why funding should be a priority in sustaining these mitigation efforts.
- 05:20 What is the North Bay Forest Improvement Program
- 09:32 Why Compensation is Needed
- 17:15 The Secret Sauce
- 21:49 Technical Experts Need Help
- 26:06 Inside the Processes
- 30:28 Collective Resilience
- 37:20 A Dire Need in the Resilience Space
- 42:44 A Regional Effort
Forest landowners are the key to mitigating wildfires. But they need help! Tune in as @JenGrayThompson and the Director of Grants and Government Programs for @AfterTheFireUSA, Molly Curley O’Brien share how North Bay Forest Improvement Program/NBFIP is empowering landowners to mitigate wildfire risks. #Recover #Rebuild #Reimagine #NorthBay #podcast #wildfire #DisasterRecovery #DisasterRecovery #AfterTheFire #Season4 #HowToDisaster #NBFIP #firemitigation #forestland #landowners #governmentgrants #collectiveresilience
00:51 “One of the weird things about mega fires that is super challenging is that we have to both respond to these mega fires in real time, but also mitigate the danger year after year after that.” – Jennifer Thompson
13:46 “The thing that people tend to miss when we’re talking about private land ownership is the fires only start there. They don’t finish there.” -Jennifer Thompson
18:13 “The secret sauce to all of this is that no one is doing this alone. The success rate would be minimal if there was just one entity that was leading this charge.” -Molly Curley O’Brien
21:09 “The beauty of working in disaster and resiliency is the opportunity for relationships.” -Jennifer Thompson
23:48 “If we are going to continue to infuse millions and millions of dollars into government funded projects to be able to protect our communities in more resilient ways, we need to acknowledge that the technical experts that have historically been the only ones at the table to do so need significant help.” –Molly Curley O’Brien
25:18 “A big part of being resilient is innovation. And the only way you can actually innovate is if you’re willing to say yes even if you’re not even quite sure how you’re going to pull it off, or if you have the staff to do it.” -Jennifer Thompson
30:51 “To just have fire experts talk about resilience is not going to create a resilient project and so it’s a good thing to have folks to be part of the conversation. We do not know the full scope of what’s needed to get done. And together, we can figure it out.” -Molly Curley O’Brien
40:38 “Budgets are statements of values and if we value resilience, we need to see it talked about more in the budget.” -Molly Curley O’Brien
Sonoma native, Molly Curley O’Brien is the Director of Grants and Government Programs for After the Fire. She developed the backbone structure and runs the North Bay Forest Improvement Program/NBFIP where landowners get compensated for the work they perform on their forested lands. Prior to After the Fire USA, Molly was also part of the “Does Business Under” (DBU) Rebuild NorthBay Foundation.
Molly is an expert in grant administration, project and budget management, systems design, policy implementation, city and state-level politics, community and government relations, strategic planning, meeting facilitation, cross-collaborations and team leading.
When she is not helping build resilient communities, Molly loves to spend her time with her husband, Flynn and their two kids, Rose and Will.
- Facebook: https://www.facebook.com/molly.curley.7
- Instagram: https://instagram.com/curleyobrien
- LinkedIn: https://www.linkedin.com/in/molly-curley-o-brien-mpp-mba-83823114
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Welcome once again to The How to Disaster Podcast where we help you recover, rebuild and reimagine. My name is Jennifer Gray Thompson, and I’m the CEO of After The Fire. Today’s guest is very special to us. Much like last time’s guests was Pamela Van Halsema who does our Community To Community Programs.
This week, we have Molly Curley Obrien. Molly Curley OBrien is our Director of Grants and Government Affairs. Specifically, she works on our areas that are before the fire. One of the weird things about mega fires that is totally possible and super challenging is that we have to both respond to these mega fires in real time, but also mitigate the danger not only for it the new year after the year after that. But even decades after that, we anticipate for at least the next 10 to even 30 years, we’re going to have to be in this balance between the response and the resilience factor before then. This space depends on people who are innovators, and it depends on collaborative models of actually getting through. We’re very proud of our NorthBay Forest improvement program, and we agreed to do this with CalFire and with all these resource conservation districts. Because it was not only collaborative, but it was innovative. It solved a really important problem, which is how do you keep us safe when a lot of land owners actually can’t afford the full cost of mitigating the danger on their own land. And if we can mitigate that, we actually keep the rest of our wildland urban interface much safer even into the valley floors. I invited Molly today because I wanted her to talk about the process of actually building something that hadn’t been done before. I think she’s done a tremendous job. While we had it before she came here, it really had no bones, no structure. We just knew that we had to get this done. We wanted it to be scalable so any other place in the entire United States could take the exact model. And not have to spend two years or a lot of investment, but really just adopt it and make it work for their own community. So I’m really excited to have Molly on today. I think you’ll really enjoy her.
And if you have any questions about Molly or our work, please visit us at www.afterthefireusa.org. And thank you once again for spending time with us on The How to Disaster Podcast.
Once again, welcome to the podcast,Molly Curley OBrien.
Molly Curley OBrien: Hi, thanks for having me today.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Well, I told the audience in the intro that I was particularly excited, very proud to showcase all of your really amazing work. I’m hoping that you can actually start out by orienting us about, how did you even come to do this job or come to work at After The Fire.
Molly Curley OBrien: Through a series of nonlinear opportunities. So in addition to the biggest heart component being that I’m from Sonoma County, and the North Bay fires that took place in 2017 really shifted my perspective and approach to how we take care of the community, and how I want to be a part in that effort. I come from a policy background, a non profit background, both policies. Just to dive into that a little bit more, both at the local level and the state level. Having worked for legislators and working for city governments to be able to understand both what it looks like for state level policy to inform implementation at a local level. And I have a Master’s in Public Policy, and I have MBA. And so all of this is sort of a hodgepodge quilt of things that sort of landed this perfect toolkit of tools to be able to come to After The Fire and be able to identify the work specifically in the North Bay Forest improvement program, to be able to know how to connect, how to collaborate, how to bring things together in order to make sense of this really complex puzzle that we were looking at the genesis of the project back in 2020.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: It felt very kismet to me because we were just having a conversation about career and then I was like, well, I have this thing that I love to sing. I have absolutely no idea how to do it. I know about policy a lot, but I have no idea how we’re actually going to get this done. Would you mind coming to work for us working in that area. And not only did you come and do that, but you put like, if CalFire liked it so much, and it was so successful. The original 1.5 million, they came in with another bucket of money in 3.5 million. It was really a remarkable thing, but it’s really a testament to all the hard work that went into it. And the level of detail. So why don’t you go ahead and talk to us about what exactly is the North Bay Forest Improvement Program?
Molly Curley OBrien: What is the North Bay Forest Improvement Program? It is a remarkable body of work and program that stretches a four county region. So we’re talking Lake County, Napa County, Mendocino County and Sonoma County. Specifically working with resource conservation districts in all four of those counties plus Clearlake Environmental Research Centre up in Lake County, to partner with landowners to provide a cost incentive program for them to be able to perform forest treatments and land stewardship projects to be able to elevate fire resilience projects on their private property. This had been an identified need from the perspective of CalFire to be able to participate and contribute dollars grant dollars to what landowners could potentially do on their property in their efforts to combat or mitigate fire taking place on their land. I’ll stop and say why that particular piece is so important. I think that the question that I get most from people who are just learning about the program is, well, shouldn’t the landowners just do that themselves? And the response is such an oversimplification of what we’re really talking about here. Because if we look at how much privately owned forested lands there are in this particular region, Sonoma County alone, 90% of all the forested lands is privately owned. 75% in Mendocino, 55% in Lake County.
So we’re talking about the majority of forested lands in these counties not being treated in the same way that we’re seeing at state level or state owned property, and federal property. So if we’re only treating that percentage, we’re leaving this egregious amount of property left untouched. Because presumably, it’s up to the landowners. We are doing a disservice by everybody and rendering the efforts that are being done at the state level and the federal level obsolete essentially. So I say that as my soapbox as to why this is so important, because the scope of work and the geography of it is so big. Not every landowner knows how to do their part. They want to be able to mitigate their risk of fire on their property, they want to be a good neighbor and be able to participate in what needs to be done in order to be more fire resilient moving forward. But the finances to be able to do that are incredibly huge. And the education to be able to do that safely and successfully is also another component that costs money, and costs time by the space of the resource conservation district. So all that context is to say that this program is essentially the first of its kind to be able to go and work directly with the landowners, and infuse public dollars to them to be able to both provide the work that needs to get done. But also the education to be able to do it correctly and safely, and then also to be able to compensate them for their time. Because this doesn’t necessarily mean that a landowner has to hire a team to be able to do that. What felt really, really important about this program is if the landowner is capable and wants to be able to do this themselves, they can, and they can be reimbursed for their time via this compensation.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So one of the questions that I get a lot when I talk about this program, which we all love so much is there’s a perception that if you are a landowner, you’re automatically wealthy. And in some counties, that might be true. But the cost of, if you have a $3 million piece of land, it’s gonna cost 2 million to actually mitigate. I’m giving a big example of that, like a little bit out of the actual amount that it would be, but you’re less likely to do it. And if you do, it won’t be as ecologically sound either. So can you talk about that perception? And can then can you talk about how equity is actually built into the program because I’m very proud of how you all have. I say that because you and your committee, how you have made sure that that’s a piece of it. I love that.
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah, so I’ll start there. So the reimbursement rate is higher in both Lake County and Mendocino County based on census data that indicates that those counties are disadvantaged or severely disadvantaged. So Lake County is the third most disenfranchised county in the state of California. So it is incredibly important that we are putting more resources into that region in addition to Mendocino to be able to make sure that we are are giving everything that we can to make sure that these projects are taking place, they’re straight up just there, and then also being able to provide even more resources to make sure that they’re successful. So to your point about this assumption that land ownership is really only for the wealthy. Yeah. Again, it kind of goes hand in hand with that assumption of, can’t the landowner just do this? Or don’t they know how to do this? These are really easy blanket statements to sort of dismiss the importance of this. So while it can be assumed that there’s some portion of land ownership that is owned by an affluent entity, that’s such a small percentage.
Then there’s the family inheritance and property that’s taking place there. The fourth, for example, generation of ownership of a family, the finances could potentially look very different now as they did when the property was first spotted with the asterisk being that the property value of whenever this was first bought looks very different from the property value now. And I will also say that there’s a third bucket of who we’re really talking about when we’re defining who the landowner is. A lot of these properties are owned by many people in a way to create and generate wealth for themselves in these really expensive parts of the state that are very, very hard to make a living. So we’re talking about LLCs, we’re talking about groups of people that are going in on particular properties together. They are collectively applying for these programs as well to be able to make sure that their home that they share with many people is fire resilient as well.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think a good example of that is actually the case of Mon Israel. Can you talk about Mon Israel?
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah. And perhaps Jen, you can actually fill in a lot of the blanks too because we’re both familiar with Mon Israel. But Mon Israel was one of the first projects that got off the ground for the North Bay Forest Improvement Program. They are an entity that’s similar to what I just described where there are a lot of folks going in on ownership of this particular plot of land together in Sonoma County that was heavily impacted by the classifier in 2020. They were a remarkable and incredibly knowledgeable partner and example of folks who were being compensated for the work that they did on their own time and in their own hands, as opposed to hiring other folks to come in. And they were the first project to be completed. But it gets to the point that this is not just one profile of land ownership. This is not one profile of the project that, Mon Israel represents both a project that was identified as being severely impacted by fire in the past. And that gets at a collective way of owning property that we want to honor and recognise as a huge part of the swath of property ownership in the region that we’re serving that needs to be acknowledged as a stakeholder in this discussion that we’re talking about.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And for those of you who are not familiar with Mon Israel, it is a quaker community. It’s an intentional community centered around values that are peaceful, and they’ve been excellent stewards of the land for like 35, 40 years. They were not new to the area. It wasn’t just a corporation that came in and was like, oh, we have this swath of land here, help us pay for it. They were people who really got hit hard. I think they lost like 14 buildings in the Glass Fire. They not only had to look at how to rebuild back in a way that could retain their community which they had worked for generations, or at least two generations to maintain. But how do they keep themselves safe? Because the thing that people tend to miss when we’re talking about private land ownership is the fires only start there. They don’t finish there. The Glass Fire didn’t start there either. It just came through. And then what happens in 2017 here in the Tubbs Fire, for example, we have North Bay fires, or complex fire of 11 fires across four counties. But the Tubbs Fire was the most impactful, and then actually came down into the valley floor of Santa Rosa. And that’s where it really did a huge amount of damage. 5000 homes minimum, maybe 6000 units of housing in a very short period of time. And so helping people who are up in the hills actually helps the whole community.
Molly Curley OBrien: And just another thing that I wanted to add about the importance of using Mon Israel as an example of why this is so important. The North Bay Forest Improvement Program was not the first time that they had done fire resilience on their property. This is a community that’s been doing this for a long time. The difference is that this was the first time that they were receiving some sort of government grant to do so. How exciting that is. That this was available to them, that this was a feasible, approachable, applicable program for them to be able to receive funding fairly soon to be able to do that. Especially after the urgency that they felt after the 2020 Glass Fire, I think that that felt incredibly important. And another really big aha moment for us around why this work is so important moving forward.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you talk about in Lake County, for example, may have about 70% of their landmass is burned. As you said, third disadvantage, most disadvantaged county in the entire state of California. I’m very, very rural. 500,000 people in Sonoma County, they have about 67,000 people there. And so what is the cost share amount? What’s the difference between a wealthier county like Sonoma County and Lake County?
Molly Curley OBrien: So in Sonoma County, the project would reimburse at 60%. So 60% of the total cost of the project would be reimbursed back to the landowner. In both Mendocino and Lake County, 80%.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you talk about rural landowners, especially under resourced counties. I love that you talked about the multi generational piece of it. But a lot of people don’t know is with those multigenerational plots of land, you often don’t have a mortgage or insurance. And so when we see these really rural places, Plumas County, Siskiyou County, there are even currently on fire, what people might miss is they might assume that these people have insurance. They often don’t, because they don’t have a mortgage. They are also in very high fire danger areas so it’s even harder to get them. They may only have access to a government program, like the fare plan in California that is very expensive and doesn’t cover a lot. So I just want to throw that in there. So say somebody’s listening to this and they’re like, I love forest management. I would like this. How did you even begin to approach this? Because all I did was say to you, we’ve got this thing that’s pretty much it. It’s got to be done. And then how did you even begin and start that process? Be honest about all of that.
Molly Curley OBrien: Let’s be honest. My title at my job is the Director of Grants and Government Programs. And the reality that I sort of more identify with is more like a senior cat herder. This has been like for the last two years where the first conversation that you and I had was, yes, I’ve got this thing. We need to make sense of it. We need to figure out what we’re doing. And then going back to the actual policy and the grant agreements, and being able to really understand what we were slated to do. And I’ll stop there. I will say that I don’t think any single partner, which there are many in the North Bay Forest Improvement Program anticipated how much time, effort, critical thinking skills, exercises of frustration and exercises of joy would be part of this program. So the secret sauce to all of this is that no one is doing this alone. The success rate would be minimal if there was just one entity that was leading this charge. So the good news is that these resource conservation districts that submitted the proposal with our organization–
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Okay, so Molly, not everybody’s going to know what a resource conservation district is. Do you mind defining that for us?
Molly Curley OBrien: So a resource conservation district is baked into part of the county government. A really old part of county government that was originally as a resource stopped for farmers and agriculturalists in the county to be able to receive education resources funding to be able to supplement their ag efforts on their property. So again, a very specific effort to landowners and what that looks like in the particular county that it’s serving. Now, as the resource conservation has grown to meet the need in our current climate, both in all of the definitions of what I mean by climate resource conservation districts have taken on a lot of wildfire resilience work as well. And for example are hiring registered professional foresters to be employed by resource conservation districts. Now, that’s not for everybody. But that’s the case for most of the resource conservation districts that we partner with through the North Bay Forest Improvement Program. A vital part of the program as well, I would say.
So in terms of the partnership and who was involved in how we did this together, how this actually came to be was just true collaboration in a buzzword of collaboration, but really getting on the horn often to be able to make sense of what we needed to do. And it wasn’t clear, and it wasn’t linear. And even still, two years later, we’re still coming up against questions about, oh, gosh. Well, we’re at this stage at the program where this needs to be done. What does that look like? I think it’s just really, really important that we have all just been grounded in the common commitment to getting this work done. And being able to make sense of these funding pipelines that are, again, ostensively quite complicated, and making sure that we are actually moving money to the people that needed the most. And that’s just required time. So it required time, but it also required a lot of commitment to each other so that not one person was left holding the bag. And it’s been a really beautiful thing. I’ve been a part of a lot of projects. I’ve been a part of a lot of collaborations. And it’s been unlike any experience I’ve had before. I’m really grateful.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: So when you came on, though, you had to build relationships. There’s so much of this. I love that you’re really highlighting that none of us are doing this alone. And it’s so true. Anyone who tries to go with this work alone is going to be very sad because it’s just not going to work. It’s not going to work whatsoever. And actually, the beauty of working in disaster and resiliency is the opportunity for relationships and to have the moment that you’ve had with this project. And because it’s also transferable, I love absolutely everything about that. So you come on and you start convening with these RCDs, and then clerk, of course, which is sort of like a de facto organization like that in Lake County,
Molly Curley OBrien: A 501 C3 on Lake County.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Can you talk about, when you guys started tackling this, you’re very well qualified to do this. But even with all of your qualifications, it was hard.
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah. Because the other thing that I sort of see as a larger issue that the North Bay Forest Improvement Program both shone a light on and perhaps found a solution for is that up until, let’s say five years ago, or maybe in 2015 when mega fires started to really show up often, people at the table who were talking about fire resilience were really the technical experts foresters, fire ecologists, people who are employed in government to be able to do to do this work. And the work was not underscored by a sense of extreme urgency at that point. And then all of a sudden, it was. The project management, program management, funding and grant management that was required because there was all of this attention, and all this money coming in especially after 2017, there was this shift in what these technical experts were doing with their time. So it was less time in the field what they were trained to do, and more time at a computer managing projects. And not to discredit that. That’s obviously a part of their job and what they were trained for as well. But there has been more and more of a need for what I like is the term organizational backbone leadership. So essentially being able to go into a large collaboration like the one that we’re talking about, and not be the technical expert of the content in which we’re providing a service for.
But instead, be the expert on how to balance the budget, how to manage the budget, how to manage the people, how to make sure that we are moving forward in our criteria, and our goals, and our data in the way that we are showing up externally, and making sure that we are still moving forward. That is an inherent skill set that these folks did not go to graduate school for. That’s not what they wanted to go to graduate school for. So it’s being able to acknowledge that if we are going to continue to infuse millions and millions of dollars into government funded projects to be able to protect our communities in more resilient ways, we need to acknowledge that the technical experts that have historically been the only ones at the table to do so need significant help. And so that’s what Rebuild North Bay Foundation. Its role in the North Bay Forest Improvement Program was able to do it, alleviated the RCDs from the administration that it was required to be able to do something so significant, and gave them the time to do the work that they needed to do specifically and directly with the landowners. And it was up to us to be able to design how we were going to actually pay people, how we were actually going, what compliance and oversight was going to look like for this type of project. The contracts, the list can go on of all the administrative stuff that’s required for something like this. And that was an incredibly important part of this program when the proposal was sent out to be able to allocate funding.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: When we said yes, we were still a four county base organization called Rebuild North Bay Foundation that is our parent 501 C3. And we were in a unique position because we were formed in the middle of the fires. And so our programming was fluid according to what our communities needed at that time. So when they approached us through a board member, Dr. Lisa McKelley. And she was like, yes, we will. A big part of being resilient is innovation. And the only way you can actually innovate is if you’re willing to say yes even if you’re not even quite sure how you’re going to pull it off, or if you have the staff to do it. But in your case, you came on with an MPP and an MBA, really helpful because those of us who love policy we’re also incredibly aware that all policy pretty much comes from this statement. Somebody should do something. But finding the right somebody to do the right thing so it actually accomplishes the outcome is much harder to do. Then people really understand. Can you speak to bringing that policy, and that business, and that MBA experience to this process of starting with as somebody should do something to execute?
Molly Curley OBrien: Somebody should do something about this. That question turns into how, then that’s where I came in. And even in my academic experience, it only takes you so far into these more applied opportunities to be able to say, okay, this is the policy. This is all what needs to be done in order to make this happen. And I think that what it really felt more often than not in those very nascent stages of this project was actually just sitting down and committing to, this might sound a little silly, but y’all are just gonna go with it too. I don’t know if you have ever had the experience of having a necklace, sort of tie up a chain necklace, tie up and a bunch of knots, and just needing to sit down and actually designate the time to untangle it. That’s what is provided when someone says, someone should do something about this. Here you go. It’s this tangled up mess of like, here’s the money. Here’s the general goals that we want to try to accomplish. Here are the metrics to be able to understand whether or not we’re success.
Now, what do we do with all of this? And it took a lot of ideating in the terms of innovation. It took a lot of conversation, it took a lot of eating humble pie to be able to say that I don’t understand any of this in the technical space. But if you understand, if you explain it to me from a perspective of a layperson, I could probably get this together. And I think that with that said, that was actually probably one of the better parts of me being a part of this, as opposed to having another technical expert to be able to have the capacity and time to be able to bring this project together was me being able to pump the brakes and say, no, that doesn’t make sense. We need to make sure that these particular lines, or these particular documents, or this particular outreach needs to be even more cleared up because a lot and scatter is not something that people get. Mastication is not something that people get. We’re talking about really specific, or acronyms for that matter. What does see fit mean? What are all these things that are so important to the integrity of the project, but need to be spelled out? And so it was me just sort of with a bunch of post it, and a lot of arrows, and talking about what are the stages that need to get done. Oh, and then going back and say, oh, you know what I didn’t think about this particular contract, and what this particular exhibit says, so I need to be able to plug that in. And it took about a year. It took about a year of planning both individually, and with my partners to be able to get something off the ground. And I will say that while we launched in 2021, which is actually quite fast. Consider we signed contracts with CalFire that summer before. Our program has changed a lot in that year and a half since then. The application looks different. The criteria for project selection looks different. The way that we meet looks different. Reports are most helpful and look different. But it takes just starting, and there’s so much of like, well, we’re just going to start here. This is stage one. Going to put it out there into the universe, get some feedback, and then go back to it. There’s never been a moment at this point where it’s been static yet.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I think that in that space of saying, I may have all this education, but I don’t know. And I find that that’s like a superpower to be able to say I don’t know, because only then do you actually give yourself the space to learn and be vulnerable in that way. It’s hard sometimes for people to say that because they’re afraid that people are going to equate, I don’t know exactly how to do this with. I’m not competent to do this. And these are very, very different things. Gotta give people room to learn and to grow, and to even make mistakes like that’s going to happen. But if your outcome now is so incredibly important, so can you talk about one of the changes that come out of, say, the past year of implementation that you’re very excited about that you think is going to be more effective. We always think about in our organization, the end user, who’s the end user? It’s the person like it in Mon Israel, right?
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah. And just to go back to the first part of what you said, Jennifer, about the difference between, I don’t know, and not feeling like you can prove competency, and how it shows up differently. I think that resilience requires a 360 degree view of whatever the topic matter is. And in this case, we’re talking about fire resilience. But to just have fire experts talk about resilience is not going to create a resilient project. And so it’s a really good thing to have folks to a be part of the conversation and part of the project for that matter to be able to identify the holes that a subject matter expert is not seeing so that we are collectively acknowledging two things. We’re collectively acknowledging that as individuals. We do not know the full scope of what’s needed to get done. And together, we can figure it out. And so I think that that’s been a pretty remarkable exercise for all of us in the North Bay Forest Improvement Program. And I think that that stems to what feels most exciting. The end user, of course, is always really great to be able to provide resources so that folks can participate in the collective resilience that we’re trying to elevate in our region. But also that this is happening, that there’s conversations of the North Bay Forest Improvement Program happening elsewhere. I think that this is why CalFire invested this in the vein of innovation in the vein of, let’s see if this works type of mentality to be able to say, oh, gosh, it is working. And here are folks in other regions in California who are interested in being able to implement something similar because all of this time and effort, and all of our points is worth it. It’s worth it for the region, but it makes it exceptionally more worth it when we can take our created wheel. As much as it’s still in development, there’s still things that need to be figured out. But if we can just take that and show other folks to be able to not have to start at the square that we started would be wonderful. So that they can just kind of adopt it and then figure it out, output things that are better for them that would work better for their region. So that they can just get it up and running in a faster way that to me feels really important and a huge obligation as the project administrator to make sure that any sort of institutional knowledge that I’m cultivating in this is being put into an external facing opportunity for someone else to be able to adopt.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And it really speaks to also, like from the very beginning in this organization, the board was clear. I was clear, we were all cleared everyone who comes on or they don’t last very long. Otherwise, we have to do things that allow other communities to not begin at the beginning period. And so if people are like, well, how does this relate to the rest of your community to community. We’re gonna like it’s right in the exact same vein. Because the idea is that we’re willing to innovate. We’re willing to say, I don’t know. But we know that this needs to be done. And we’re willing to dive in and even get it wrong, or have the flexibility really important to change it as you go. But adaptable tools and systems for communities to not only respond to make a fire, but also to mitigate the danger. And so this is one of the reasons I really love this program. And also, I am not a subject matter expert in it. And I think that that’s actually been great for me. I’m not going to lie, it’s been good. They know what they’re doing. And if there’s any problem that I will help in the way they need me to do it. But I hope that you continue to feel incredibly proud of that. But I just really want to make sure that we talked about how important it is, though. Say that somebody does want to do a program like this to actually go out into the field and have site visits to actually meet the people in the places you’re impacting. Can you talk about that?
Molly Curley OBrien: I’m just realizing what felt important to say at the beginning. So much of this has taken place during COVID. So all of this programming was designed in Zoom wormholes. Especially given the fact that much of this has to do with being out in the field, it was exceptionally challenging to be able to try to understand all of this from just reading about it and hearing about it via Zoom or via phone. So I say all that because the field visits are great. They are just starting after a long, long time of not being able to. And it is the cherry on top of being able to understand that, again, that 360 degree view of why this work matters. And to be able to see the actual product of government money spent what a concept, that government money was actually started in the coffers of a state account, and it moved with a couple of glitches to an end user who was then able to use it in the way that they had intended. There’s oversight there. If you did not do the project to 80% of what the prescribed proposal says, you do not get reimbursed. And there’s a review of that project by a registered professional forester to be able to determine that compliance.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. And there are public funds. Even with non-public funds, we’d always be very careful with public funds, or is that extra layer of scrutiny as there should be.
Molly Curley OBrien: Yes, absolutely. So I say that all because there’s an opportunity to be able to do that field, to be able to go out into the field and be able to see this work, and be able to also see just how many people are part of this project. It’s not even a handful. There are many, many people.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Yeah. And then to hear about that it’s made a difference in how much they can do, how much safer we are. And it’s just at the beginning, and there’s so much more to do. But with every big problem, you have to just start somewhere. And yeah, I feel super proud that our organization was the beginning of something, and that we had the capacity. And again, thank goodness you were not a registered forester, and you had all of these other skills to really fill this unique role that was needed. It sounds almost muttered paternalistic. I don’t mean it that way, but I’m very proud of the work that you’ve done here. I’m very certain that we would not have been able to do it, at least in this, we’d probably still be working on the design, quite frankly, had you not actually taken the helm of that. What would you like to do in this experience to change the field you wanted to go in? Because you were in it. You were in policy with a slightly different field before, so can you talk about what you see out there, what you’re super interested in, and what you hope for?
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah, I think that resilience is the name of the game right now. Climate HAS changed. The climate crisis is something that we are in a lived experience in and to be able to be a part of efforts to live in face of it with it is what feels most important to me. I think that there’s a lot of opportunity and a need, and dire need to have wildfire resilience, especially in this region to be able to continue to live in this space. In the last two years, I’ve learned so much about forestry. I know what a lap and scatter is, and I can identify field work from a highway. I never anticipated being able to do that. But here I am to be able to say I know exactly what’s going on there. Some whoever’s in the car with me being like, I don’t see anything. So that feels like something that I’ve got to continue, and be able to steward, and be able to share, and be able to encourage others to do so because the need is so great. And even though there’s more people that are coming to that proverbial table to help the people that have been there, get the job done, more and more people need to so it feels imperative that I stay. And with the North Bay Forest Improvement Program and how it shows up in different facets and different projects elsewhere as well.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I also think it’s empowering to take something that’s really pretty scary, which is this era of climate based disasters that are so frequent. And in our area, in particular, mega fires. Now, they tell us about a mega flood. We had a small earthquake yesterday, and I’m just like, whatever. What are you going to do? So you got to stare it in the eye. You just got to be like, that’s fine. This is the reality of it. So how are we all going to use our different skill sets to get to the other side? And I think you’re going to do great things, and you’ve done something great here. But I think that this is such a wonderful beginning for you to make an impact that is going to help us get through this, but promises to be a very challenging time full of the need for really good minds, good hearts and humble hearts. Thank you.
Molly Curley OBrien: Oh, yeah. No problem. Well, of course, This feels like a calling and a duty at this point. And just from an economic standpoint, something that just feels important about why resilience matters is the data point that you and I both share often around how, for every $6 that’s spent in fire suppression. It’s $1 via resilience, so the economic theory reasoning of being able to allocate huge dollars for resilience has spades on the return of investment to be able to protect our communities better in the future. So again, it feels from that perspective of, this is imperative that we keep doing this, and that we highlight this, and that we advocate for this, and that we share that this is part of the equation, and that fire suppression is more expensive. And it’s not going away to have large work. We can talk about that later. But to have it live as a higher value thing, if budgets are statements of values and we value resilience, we need to see it talked about more in the budget.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: We do. And I’m glad you brought that up because we have talked about this a lot. When I get a question from a reporter or somebody like a national reporter and they’re like, why should somebody in this area like Burbank or Iowa help to pay for resiliency in another area? And my answer is always like, they’re paying for it anyway. Do you know that they want to pay six times as much or $1, or $6. That’s pretty much the deal. Then we all have a responsibility too. And as a community, we have a community of the North Bay, we have a community of the state of California, we have a community of the American west of our country because this is happening everywhere.
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah. And it might not be fire, but it is in an era of a climate crisis. Mutual aid is going to be needed on some level regardless of where you are. And if we were to actually just go back to the fires and talk about air quality, a really good anecdote to be able to understand why it matters that tax dollars, that federal tax dollars from the East Coast go to California to support this. About a year ago during the 2021 fire season, I was emailing with one of the landowners who was visiting family on the East Coast. We were in the coordination of getting a contract signed for a project to take place on Sunland in Sonoma County. And he said that he was looking outside and saw the smoke. That was from buyers. Here you can see fire, and there you go. That’s the most tangible way that you can reason around why this is important. That collectively that we’re all doing this together because the air that we breathe is connected. And if fire, smoke is taking place here, it’s not just going to stay in California. It’s gonna float elsewhere. And so we don’t want that. We want to be able to mitigate that as much as possible. And this is how we can do so.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: And all in our little part. So is there anything that you wish I would have asked you today, or anything I’ve left out, or anything you want to add into it before we wrap up here?
Molly Curley OBrien: Yeah. Just one quick note to go off on that regional component. Smoke is obviously going elsewhere. Fire doesn’t just keel over when it reaches the county line. So one of the really cool things about the North Bay Forest Improvement Program is that it’s this regional effort. And it’s the next stage, it’s the next chapters, I’d love to be able to see this done more. But what we’re really trying to say is fires that are taking place in Lake County, they’re moving into Napa County, they’re moving into Sonoma County. So in addition to doing our best to forested land that’s privately owned, because if we only treat what’s publicly on, we’re not being resilient. But if we’re only investing dollars in one county and not the other, that’s sharing a forest that shares trees. We’re also not resilient that way. So I think that that’s one of the really great things about this multi county program is it’s beginning to address that. And like I said, what I would love to be able to see in an iteration or two is being able to do a shaded feel break across county lines.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: People aren’t going to know what that is, so go ahead and define–
Molly Curley OBrien: Shaded fuel brake is being able to take a swath of land and being able to remove all of the underbrush, all the vegetation, still keep trees hence the shaded canopy that’s still there, but that it’s not as congested with all the other types of smaller or flammable or dry parts of a forest that that’s been removed so that the trees are just there. If there’s fire to take place, it moves slower.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: I say two things. People are weird. Our eyes are not used to seeing a healthy forest. We don’t know whether or not because we haven’t lived, like it’s been 70 years since we really saw that. Or this policy of constant fire suppression of Smokey the Bear needs to be reimagined or done away with. But reimagined for sure. So once we had the North Bay fires, I mean, I didn’t know. I drove through Glen Ellyn and I thought, oh, the apocalypse is here, and it’s just going to remain charred forever like a home would. But then like three weeks later, nature’s, hey, I got this. Here’s a bunch of green grass. I’m going to bloom and things that I haven’t bloomed. And now when you go to Sonoma Valley Regional Park where they regularly used prescribed burns and some of the other forest treatments, you can see all the way through the forest. They’re not destroying it, they’re actually doing what indigenous people would have done and did for thousands of years before we interrupted that. So that’s one of the things that I’m hoping that we also find our way through learning to see, I was called the garbage forest right underneath.
Molly Curley OBrien: We don’t find prescribed burning on this project, just to be clear. We do a pile and burn that can get something like that, but not a traditional prescriber.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: But we do see a huge shift, especially in this state in particular around centering indigenous voices and practices and people in how it is that we should be addressing this very real physical, economic, mental, all the threats that why these mega fires are present. I’m very happy to see not only the interaction with the forest like with the North Bay Forest Improvement Program, but also for using cultural fire burns to do the same thing. And maybe in another iteration of the North Bay Forest Improvement Program, we will also see that elements to one would hope so. Anything else you’d like to leave us with, Molly? Like any thoughts? Anything at all.
Molly Curley OBrien: We’re just getting started. It’s gonna look different in a couple of years. And I think about that often now. What is this all going to look like when this is a multimillion dollar eight figure project program? And just to think back to the humble beginnings that it started with is really exciting because I believe with every fiber of my being that this is something that can really take off across the state and beyond that as well. So stay tuned.
Jennifer Gray Thompson: Stay tuned. Well, that’s a perfect way to leave this. Thank you, Molly, for all of your amazing work and for being on The How to Disaster Podcast today.
Molly Curley OBrien: Thank you for having me.