The Virtues and Limits of Collaboration


Piercy Volunteer Fire Department

By Jeffrey Hedin, Commissioner, Piercy Fire Protection District

“Cooperation, Collaboration, and Communication;” add Coordination and it’s a perfect title for a report from Piercy.

I first heard enviro activists promoting collaboration during a North Coast Resource Partnership (NCRP) conference at the Bear River Tribe’s Community Center in Loleta, CA. The presenters stressed that since catastrophic disasters have no respect for political boundaries, we have to collaborate to respond effectively. Less than two years later I feel double dipped, triple dipped, saturated, almost hog tied with collaboration and the need for it. But not because Piercy had no prior experience with collaboration.

From Fledgling to Flying 

For over 20 years our Volunteer Fire Department has responded mutually with Leggett VFD, and when called, with 10 other VFDs in the border area between Humboldt and Mendocino counties. Recently, after meeting with state senator Mike McGuire, our twelve departments chose a committee from among their chiefs to analyze our needs and propose a budget to utilize $2 million to improve coordinated regional response. Within two months they chose the gear they wanted and whom to order it. Long working acquaintance and shared vision and goals make collaboration smooth.

Without that acquaintance, simple human diversity has made our other collaborative efforts more complex, even when working in Piercy on Piercy’s needs.

 Jasha Mae of KMUD interviewing (l to r) Jeff Hedin Larry Casteel, Pat Landergen at the Piercy Community Hall which is being cleaned after their Spring Breakfast. 
Photo by Josh Golden

Piercy got its name when local residents wanted a post office. When the county line was finally surveyed, a third of the Piercy Postal District was in Humboldt County, the rest in Mendocino County. During the tan bark to split stock* to logging/milling to marijuana boom times, no one cared. Cash covered crises. Post boom times we became a fire district that did not include all our postal district, a postal district without a post office, a commute community without a school. Children were bussing both north and south to different school districts, with no safe place for our bussed children to wait for their parent, we had no emergency shelter, and our volunteer fire department was trying to maintain a response team with no local employment. We even commuted to vote and to buy stamps to pay our taxes.

* Split Stock is generally railroad ties, fence posts, fence railings, shingles, etc. split out of trees, usually where the tree was felled. In Piercy, the trees being split were redwood. Occasionally Douglas-firs were split for local use. Hammers, wedges, and froes were the basic splitting tools. The products were moved out of the woods on carts or pack trains, then floated down the South Fork and Mainstem Eel rivers on manned log rafts for regional sales or shipping south on coastal freighters.

The teams struggling to keep our Community Hall, VFD, and Fire Protection District from total collapse began to share resources to maintain basic community services. When our fire station flooded, we insured the Community Hall for emergency response training, slowly diverted the flood waters from our fire station, built an office inside it, and started to look for grants. We were ad hoc collaborating without using the term. Ideally planned collaboration will be easier.

At first we simply appealed for help to continue to provide emergency response to local residents inside and outside our district, to travelers on Highways 1 and 101, and to visitors in our state parks and BLM recreation areas. Later we asked for help because human health and environmental health are so interdependent that they must co-evolve. A healthier Piercy would do more for a healthier environment. A series of grants from Trees Foundation and the Mendocino Community Foundation have let us get our two core buildings (the Community Hall and fire house) back into nearly full repair by attracting willing doers and donors. Our event calendar at the hall is fuller; our core team is growing bigger; and at least we agree that the hall must qualify as a fully equipped emergency shelter as soon as possible. But 10 years or more into our recovery we are still not a well-coordinated team.

One of the Piercy VFD’s fire trucks lit up for the Garberville Christmas parade.
Photo by Jasha Mae

And as we reach out to “collaborate” with other organizations, we find that intentions do not create coordination.

The Piercy Fire Protection District collaborated with the Mendocino County Resource Conservation District, the Redwood Forest Foundation, Inc., and the Arcata District of the Bureau of Land Management to secure a $5 million grant to put shaded fuel breaks on nearly 1,300 acres in and around our district. After working on nearly 600 acres, we are still trying to get four contractors and their teams and thirteen land ownerships to share a vision of increasing fire resiliency on our landscape while maintaining ecological functions. This includes biodiversity, soil creation and retention, rainwater absorption, and food for pollinating and composting fauna. We also want to keep our recreational appeal so that maintenance of the fuel breaks is more like a walk in a park than a scramble through an obstacle course. We’re even trying to generate vocabulary: “Let’s call this Eco Services Forestry.”

Collaborating with the Mendocino County Office of Emergency Services to create a county-wide evacuation plan has, through tremendous effort by our Public Information Officer, resulted in a great plan for our district, but I have yet to see a county-wide plan.

We continue to try to work with the Mendocino County Association of Fire Departments, the NCCOAD (North County Community Organizations Active in Disaster), and many other worthy acronyms. Sometimes I feel like being the firstest with the mostest collaboration is the new playing ground for cosmic oneupmanship, and I can’t keep up.

I don’t wish to discourage participation. Collaboration helps, and it draws support. Go for it. But don’t expect a panacea. These grants do not buy solutions to problems. Every thing evolves. The grants are a down payment on a sustainable relationship with nature.

Maintenance, Maintenance

Collaboration is not widely practiced in the U.S.A.. We can’t even get nighttime drivers to dim their lights for oncoming traffic. Be patient. Coordination takes time, practice, and a form of intimacy. It’s an improv dance.

Thank every effort. Enjoy any progress, and celebrate it.

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