Fire Safe Council closing … for now |

Fire Safe Council closing … for now

Sandi Hoover

The Nevada Fire Safe Council will close its doors Monday but will keep its status as a nonprofit group until it learns its fate, board members announced Thursday.

“We will be closing our doors at the end of this month because there are no funds to pay the rent,” said Joan Presley, chairwoman of the council’s board and fire marshal for the city of Reno. “I guess we’ll just be dormant awaiting the outcome of all this, but we’ll still remain an active 501(c)3.”

The council, established in 1999 to reduce the risk of catastrophic fires through creating defensible space at the neighborhood level, was taken to task in a February report released by the Inspector General’s Office for the U.S. Department of Agriculture for mishandling funds and commingling accounts. The report condemned lax oversight and internal controls by the group.

Grant funds to the nonprofit group from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and the Nevada Division of Forestry have since been frozen, leaving the council without money to operate or assist the 135 communities it serves throughout the state.

Vice chairman Larry Burton said he remains concerned about paying the council’s bills.

“We don’t want contractors or the public to worry, because we’re working on an update and trying to reach a resolution on outstanding invoices,” Burton said. “We were hoping up until this morning that our congressional representatives would intervene on our behalf, but we’re not walking away from our membership or our obligations.”

Ed Smith, natural-resource specialist for the Carson City/Storey County Cooperative Extension, said it might be feasible for the extension office to play a part in preserving the council.

“We might be willing to provide the space,” Smith said. “There’s some logic to support this. With 135 chapters and 5,000 members, I’d be derelict not to keep that resource open. We’ve managed volunteers for 100 years.”

Cheva Heck, public affairs officer for the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit said the documentation required from the council for her agency’s audit was received in mid-March and still is under review.

“They asked for an extension and received it,” she said, “but it was a very large amount of documentation, and is still being reviewed by our Albuquerque service center. We set a completion date of May 31, and it looks like we are right on target for that date.”

Heck said her agency remains committed to doing fuels reduction, as well as helping communities with that task.

“We’re looking for other ways of doing this – it’s our number one priority,” she said.

“We understand (the fire safe council’s) frustration, but we have an obligation to make sure taxpayer dollars are handled properly, and we want to reassure the public that we’re moving forward without waiting for the outcome of this audit,” Heck said.

Representatives form the NDF and BLM were not available for comment Thursday.

Federal auditors began investigating the fire council after a hotline caller complained in July 2011 that competitive bidding wasn’t used to hire contractors.

During that review, auditors questioned the council’s ability to account for $3.6 million in federal stimulus grants received through the U.S. Forest Service, as well as $6.2 million in other grants.

It also criticized the practice of allowing the council’s former executive director, Andrew List, to handle “all aspects of transactions involving the grants,” despite federal regulations that require those duties to be segregated “to reduce the risk of error and fraud.”

Auditors said in their report that there was nothing to indicate fraud had occurred, but they recommended that funds be frozen.

• The Associated Press contributed to this report.