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Sonoma Stories: Cloverleaf Ranch celebrated 70 years; now it starts over

Third generation Cloverleaf Ranch owner Shawna DeGrange stands in the remains of one of the two barns from the 1860's that were lost in the Tubbs Fire. Grange hopes to have the equestrian camp the family has operated for 70 years open by next summer. (photo by John Burgess/The Press Democrat)

CHRIS SMITH,

Asked where she lives, Shawna DeGrange has for years been prone to answer, “Heaven.”

DeGrange has never taken for granted the gift of having grown up and spent most of her 35 years on the 160-acre horse ranch and idyllic summer camp for kids that rises from Old Redwood Highway just north of the city limits to well up the western flank of Fountaingrove.

She stands in reverent awe of Cloverleaf Ranch, founded by her late grandparents 70 years ago and passed to her by her parents in 2010. These days, she beholds as well the enormity of the task to rebuild it.

“Everything’s just melted,” DeGrange said from amid the ruins left by the Tubbs fire. What hurts most is the destruction of her parents’ home and the ranch’s two great, Civil War-era redwood barns, and the deaths of two horses.

Just as she might direct a mount while riding, DeGrange nudges herself to stay on the bright side.

“I’m trying to take it one step at a time and be grateful,” said the 2000 graduate of the former Ursuline High School, located just up Old Redwood Highway.

She was taking a respite on Maui when the fire roared down from Fountaingrove before dawn on Oct. 9, devouring the nearby Hilton Sonoma Wine Country hotel and the Fountaingrove Inn, then leaping west to the Coffey Park neighborhood. For a time that morning, as she spoke by phone with key Cloverleaf staffer Shayla Wilson, she feared her mother, Ginger DeGrange, had died in the fire.

But Ginger, a renowned Sonoma County equestrian who also grew up on the ranch and for more than 30 years owned and operated it with her husband, Ron, emerged almost untouched. She and Wilson and some angels with horse trailers rounded up and safely moved more than 30 family-owned and boarded horses.

Ginger, who credits Wilson with awakening and saving her and Ron, was on the ranch also for the Hanly fire of 1964, which threatened but didn’t damage Cloverleaf. She said the firestorm of Oct. 9 was a different animal.

“It was coming so fast,” she said. “I have never seen wind like this.”

Though the flames destroyed her house, and daughter Shawna’s mobile home, and the barns and the camp kitchen and zip line and tack shed and Trading Post and several other structures and amenities, including some of the camp bunkhouses, it missed a few buildings and the classic Foley & Burke Circus wagons long ago converted to sleeping quarters.

Shawna said with a look of irony, “The (stacked-full) hay barn was left standing, which is wild.”

She and her mother said separately the most emotional aspect of the fire has been the community response. In addition to all who helped move and board the horses, friends and strangers and former Cloverleaf Ranch campers across the nation and overseas have sent messages of love and support, and offered to help with the reconstruction.

“It’s about the village,” Ginger said. “The blessings have been just unbelievable.”

A crowdfunding appeal for help to rebuild Cloverleaf Ranch has attracted donations of more than $33,000. A second one for Shayla Wilson, who lost everything when the fire burned her unit at the ranch, has received nearly $3,000.

More than 100 people have said that when the time comes to go to work creating the new Cloverleaf, they’ll be there.

As heartbreaking as it is for Shawna to walk about the remains of the ranch, being there also helps her accept the reality and extent of the loss. And already she’s pondering what she wants to build, and where.

“The more I’m here, the more it’s helping with the healing,” she said.

A doer who has run Cloverleaf since age 28, she aspires to welcome back campers, as usual, next summer.

Chris Smith is at 707-521-5211 and chris.smith@pressdemocrat.com.