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JENNER — The "bar" on North Jenner Beach is now closed, the irregular skyline irreversibly altered by the recent leveling of elaborate driftwood structures that fans say brought whimsy and warmth to the stretch of sand reaching north of the Russian River.

Frequent visitors are lamenting the loss toward the northernmost end of what's known by locals as Driftwood Beach, saying the demolition and a subsequent controlled burn stripped the community of living folk art that was part of a decades-old tradition there.

"So creative — such wonderful innovation and spirit of cooperation and collaboration," said Guerneville resident Kathy Ocean, who would often send guests from her vacation-rental business down to the beach.

"Besides the fact that they were charming and whimsical, to me they represented a certain remnant of Sonoma County cultural history, and there's not many of those left," said her friend, Forestville musician Brian Whistler, 61. "Plus, they were an attraction, not just to locals but to people from out of town."

But for state agencies in charge of Sonoma Coast beaches and fire safety, the large makeshift edifices and abundance of driftwood in and around them posed a threat to public safety that needed to be addressed.

The structures' very allure was part of the problem, inspiring folks and, especially, kids to explore and climb, and suggesting a sturdiness that wasn't real, Supervising State Park Ranger Damien Jones said.

They also encouraged illegal camping and squatting, and the litter and sanitation issues that sometimes come with it, he and Monte Rio Fire Chief Steve Baxman said.

"People put a lot of effort into those things, (but) their concern is not the same as our concern," Jones said. "I can see how it would be neat thing to go down there and have kind of a long-term thing to work on.

"We can't share that perspective," he said.

As a result of the clash of philosophies, California State Parks employees demolished the structures before Cal Fire crews set fire to them during a driftwood burn.

Beyond that, the simple accumulation of driftwood and the temptation to build bonfires on cool evenings created a fire risk that fire crews have for years sought to neutralize by burning off some of the wood on the beach, usually around May, before the brush-thick hill above dries out.

This year the burn operation had to wait until last week, in part because of the dry spring, and got out of control when gusting winds came up unexpectedly, fire officials said.

Flames from burning piles of driftwood at the base of the hill went over and touched off the hillside vegetation, sending flames running up toward Highway 1 above and creating the very scenario fire crews were seeking to avoid.

The Nov. 7 blaze charred a wooden Caltrans retaining wall below a stretch of Highway 1 and blackened 3? acres of hillside but was prevented from crossing the highway, in part because firefighters already were on the scene, though many additional crews responded.

But even as the fire was burning, those for whom the beach structures serve as a multigenerational gathering place were worried about their continued existence.

In addition to windbreaks and teepee-style shelters common to many Northern California beaches, the Jenner structure included one marked "bar," containing makeshift furniture and a counter with an order window. Red handprints that reminded Whistler of those left by the ancient Anasazi of the southwest marked the main pillars of the bar.

Another edifice, the largest, had multiple rooms and corridors, steps leading up to a second floor sleeping loft and, at one time, a swing.

They were pieced together over time from gnarled driftwood that washes up in abundance on the beach just above the mouth of the Russian River, much of it brought downstream during heavy winter rains and then driven up on the sand by the surf.

There was a checkerboard painted on an upturned stump, and a homemade dart board, complete with darts. Lines of poetry, profound and silly, were jotted here and there in charcoal or carved into pieces of wood. They included William Blake — "If the doors of perception were cleansed, everything would appear to man as it is, Infinite" — and a paraphrased line from wizard Albus Dumbledore from the Harry Potter novels — "Do not dwell on dreams and forget to live."

Anna Swan of Rio Nido defended the integrity of the structures, held together in places with nails and screws, zip ties, cables and the like.

The piles of wood left behind are far more dangerous, she said.

Forestville resident Pam Shirley said she spent her meditative time on the beach, often adding on to the ever-evolving structures.

"It was just a nice place to go," she said. "It was just mellow and peaceful, and you could look around at all this gorgeous artwork and poetry, and notes. I certainly left messages for both my grown children and my grandchildren down there."

Jim Jochim of Guerneville agreed. "Our pleasures and our adventures are diminished as a result of the fears of what people will do," he said.

But Jochim said he finds some solace in thinking of the wood structures "so lovingly put together" as akin to the impermanent sand art of Tibetan Buddhists.

"I could kind of get into that," he said, "like &‘OK, we have to start over again.'"

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or mary.callahan@pressdemocrat.com.