As a former president of the Mountain Communities Fire Safe Council, I find Norm Cassen’s recent critical letters a bit hard to stomach. He smears the hard-working volunteers and staff with innuendos of financial conflicts of interest and corruption without making a direct accusation, which would amount to slander.

Having been one of the founding board members and president from MCFSC’s beginnings to its emergence as a major influence on the Hill and partner with the Forest Service and Cal Fire, I know the staff and board quite well. They are people who stepped up and went to work cutting brush and clearing weeds and dangerous trees on private property, asking homeowners for donations (and sometimes getting stiffed). We were mostly retirees, using our own chainsaws and other tools week after week, year after year. I challenge Mr. Cassen to name any other organization on the Hill that can match that dedication and effort. Twelve years after starting, the Woodies are still at it.

Our early efforts caught the attention of the Forest Service and the California Fire Safe Council, which administers government grants, and we began winning grants enabling us to buy tools and small vehicles to ease the work load. The council has brought millions of dollars into the community to hire local contractors to do the heavy work we couldn’t handle. MCFSC has made a difference; just ask Cal Fire and the Forest Service.

These grants require that homeowners share the cost, 25 to 35 percent. Cal FSC recently raised the abatement grant co-pay to 50 percent, but the council has been able to keep that co-pay down to 35 percent through efforts of the Woodies, who are pitching in to help. MCFSC takes a percentage of the grants to cover administrative costs, including the salary of the grossly underpaid executive director. (Who are those who say it’s “a large cut”? And what is a “large cut”?) She works for her love of the community and the council as do the rest of the paid staff. MCFSC has always operated “on the cheap.” The modest membership dues couldn’t begin to cover the operational expenses. And membership is open to the public.

This “private” entity is a 501(c)(3) charitable organization chartered by the state, dedicated to educating the public about fire safety in the forest and abating the threat to the extent that limited resources allow. A civilian organization, it can perform tasks public agencies can’t, such as developing the Community Wildfire Protection Plan with support of the Forest Service and Cal Fire, and abating private property. The grant funds are government money, from USFS, BLM and FEMA, the last funding the shake-roof replacement project now underway. MCFSC is audited annually; the audits are open at its office for public inspection. No one is benefiting from these funds except the community, and contractors and their employees who do the major work.

The Mountain Area Safety Task force — composed of the USFS, Cal Fire, CHP, RivCo Sheriff’s Office, SoCal Edison, MCFSC and numerous other agencies — has been studying the problem of absentee owners not abating their properties for some time. The current county ordinance does not solve the problem of absentees ignoring citations. At a recent public meeting with fire agencies, residents expressed worries about the problem. A prominent Realtor asked for action, and Riverside County Fire Chief John Hawkins committed to appointing a task force to revise the county ordinance. MCFSC was asked to participate. It is a public safety issue, and there is no profiteering involved.

Aside from Mr. Cassen, others have raised the topic of public voting on the ordinance. When was the last time people could vote on an ordinance? The elected board of supervisors passes those laws. When the proposal comes to the supervisors, it will be in an open meeting where people can express their views on it.

MCFSC has won awards, locally and nationally, for its work. It and MAST are role models for the rest of the nation. Their sole motivation is protection of the community.

Blair Ceniceros