Months before a wildfire burned 280 square miles at the edge of Los Angeles, a little-known group was awarded a $178,000 grant to clear flammable brush and tree limbs to protect a mountain neighborhood in the Angeles National Forest.
The work proposed for 90 acres in Big Tujunga Canyon was never done, and the grant was rescinded two days before the massive blaze ignited Aug. 26. Sixty homes were burned in the rugged canyon, by far the greatest concentration of property damage in the huge wildfire.
The ferocity of the fire makes it difficult to say how many homes, if any, might have been spared if the work had been completed. But failure to do the job offers a glimpse into a quasi-public system that provides little transparency while distributing millions of taxpayer dollars for fire protection on private property.
The grant came through the California Fire Safe Council Inc., a nonprofit organization that funneled $13.5 million in 2009 to groups and municipalities for fire prevention and safety projects. Most of the money comes from the U.S. Forest Service, the Bureau of Land Management and other federal agencies.
Grant languished for months
It's not clear when the council recognized a problem with the Big Tujunga project, but the grant languished for months. No money ever changed hands before it was pulled back.
"The very best use of fire protection money would have been to clear brush in Big Tujunga Canyon — that's where we lost the homes," said U.S. Rep. Brad Sherman, D-Calif., who questioned why a nonprofit group was needed to steer taxpayer dollars to local groups.
As a nonprofit, it is not subject to open government laws even though much of its funding comes from the government.
"When the federal government wants to build a road, you hire a private sector company to build a road, you don't establish a statewide nonprofit," Sherman said. "I don't know why you would need all these intermediary agencies. ... It ought to be transparent, and not just with regard to the canyon but their whole setup."
Layers of review for each grant include a committee with representatives from federal agencies that makes recommendations to the council. One of the factors considered is a group's history in fire safety projects and ability to complete the job.
In the case of Big Tujunga, the grant was awarded to a group headed by Ben Furia Means, a fitness trainer, massage therapist and recording engineer with no apparent background in fire safety work.
Means' group, the Big Tujunga Fire Safe Council, is one of dozens of local councils established around the state that pursue such grants.
‘It is very unfortunate'
Contacted by e-mail, Means did not respond to repeated requests to explain what went awry with the grant. His phone was out of service — his home was among those lost in the fire.
"It is very unfortunate that this much damage occurred," Means wrote.
In written statements, state council Executive Director Margaret Grayson provided few specifics about how the grant turned sour. She would not release a copy of the Big Tujunga application, saying it is not a public document.
"We felt that the Big Tujunga grant had merit and attempted to move forward with it," Grayson wrote. "We had no choice but to rescind this grant."
The group had a fiscal sponsor Grayson would not identify, which at some point withdrew for reasons she did not disclose. The grants can require a matching amount from the recipient, though percentages vary.
Once the sponsor pulled out, the state panel could not give the Big Tujunga council the money because it is not a nonprofit, a requirement to receive the grant. Additionally, there were "major issues" with access to some of the private property where brush was supposed to be cleared, Grayson said.
The state council provides extensive guidance on how to organize and run local fire-safety groups, but it's unclear if Means had members or held a meeting.
John Benriter, 66, a preservation contractor, who lost his home in the fire, said he declined Means' invitation to join the council in April because he was suspicious that the only people involved appeared to be Means and his wife.
Walter McCall, a member of the state panel, said the lack of local involvement was a concern.
"Community support that he promised didn't materialize," McCall said. "When this guy didn't come through, we didn't have any alternative."
Forest Service spokesman Jason Kirchner said the state council was formed as a one-stop-shop for groups seeking grants for brush clearing and wildfire planning in areas where fire on federal land could threaten homes.
‘Telling us the truth’
Before the council votes, a separate review committee ranks projects on more than a dozen factors: Will it reduce dry brush that could feed a fire? Are costs reasonable? Is the plan clearly defined?
But most of the requirements are aimed at determining what the proposal will do, not evaluate the credentials of the person who will carry it out.
"We assume they are telling us the truth" on the applications, said Pat Kidder, the state council secretary, who said he didn't know enough of the details to discuss the Big Tujunga grant.
Means, who uses the professional name Ben Fury, most recently worked as a fitness and strength coach, according to his resume posted online. At other points, he was involved in audio recording, Web design, video and freelance journalism, according to the document.
Grayson did not respond to a question about how Means' background qualified him for the money.
Kirchner, the Forest Service spokesman, directed questions to the council and credited the statewide group for "the sheer amount of work they've accomplished on the ground" in recent years. That was echoed by Jan Bedrosian of the Bureau of Land Management, who called the state council a wonderful program.
It's hard to say if anything could have warded off a fire hot enough to fuse coins and melt aluminum.
Culver City Fire Department Capt. Brian Evans, who supervised 70 firefighters in the canyon that day, said engines and crews pulled back after rising temperatures and increasing wind whipped the blaze into a firestorm. Thick smoke ruled out bringing in aircraft to drop water or retardant, he said.
Retiree Dave Johnson, 62, whose canyon home was incinerated in the blaze, said trimming low-hanging branches on the many tall pines in the area "would have been a great benefit." At the same time, he could only guess if it would have slowed the wall of flame.
Grayson doubted the fire could be stopped.
"Even if the Big Tujunga grant had accomplished the clearance contemplated, it is unlikely to have limited the damage," she said.