Monan’s Rill, Sonoma County community burned in Glass fire, sees a safer future in fire line
MONAN’S RILL — There was a time in his 20s when Rick Kavinoky could scamper up a towering Douglas fir on this Sonoma County ridgeline, a perch so high he could peer down into northern Napa Valley and feel the wind rush up.
It was below those trees where Kavinoky, now 73, would bring his stepchildren to picnic, the kids dubbing it Narnia for the way they pushed through fir branches like C.S. Lewis’ storybook children pushed through fur coats in the wardrobe to enter a magic world.
When a branch of the Glass fire ignited along Diamond Mountain’s ridgelines sometime early Sept. 28 and burned roughshod into the Mark West Creek watershed, it charred most of these untamed yet inhabited woodlands and oak meadows of Monan’s Rill, a collectively owned intentional community on 414 acres off St. Helena Road.
Lost were 12 of 13 homes holding generations of memories and the careful handiwork of those who built these structures out of cherry, oak and redwood, handmade stained-glass windows and skylights letting the sunrays in.
Up against at least a century of forest buildup, the community had in the last several years taken major steps toward making their forested enclave more resilient against fire. They have cleared overgrowth on nearly 100 acres by hand and taken steps to safeguard homes.
Most significantly, they have introduced prescribed burns, so far burning 8.5 acres in the last two years, hoping to build a sort of shield over the course of years against a Diablo wind-driven fire and their homes nestled into a south-facing slope.
They had not yet done enough, Kavinoky laments, to stop the Glass fire from displacing 22 adults and eight children. One home, the community building, workshop and a solar panel array remain standing.
“I am just wishing the fire would have waited a couple of years,” Kavinoky said.
Four Quaker families formed Monan’s Rill in 1973 to be a place for community dedicated to sharing land and resources, naming it after a local creek and an old Sir Walter Scott poem. They make decisions by consensus and will keep talking and listening to reach a group conclusion even if just one person dissents.
In the early years, forest maintenance meant “hiring 18-year-olds with chain saws,” Kavinoky said.
Decades later, this community that has treasured each tree and knoll has been on the leading edge of preparing the land for fire by using fire itself, set intentionally under controlled conditions, to clear the land of dangerous fuels.
Recent years of major wildfires had convinced Kavinoky and others in his community to dispatch romantic notions of untouched nature, set aside fears of fire and make the land livable for generations more.
“I used to think like everyone else: The best thing to do with nature is to leave it alone,” Kavinoky said. “Let it do what it does, that’s the natural thing — which is totally wrong, but that’s what we all thought.”
Working with Audubon Canyon Ranch's Fire Forward program, they burned the first 2.5 acres in 2018. Last year, they had intended to burn 21 acres, but the fire burned hotter than expected and they kept it to 6.
“We had to take it really slow,” Fire Forward director Sasha Berleman said. “There’s so much available fuel that the amount of energy available to burn, even with mild conditions, it wanted to burn really hot.”
Prescribed fire is a logistically complicated endeavor that requires permits from Cal Fire and local air quality districts plus dozens of trained volunteers, but it is increasingly seen as an essential tool to protect forested communities against wildfire.
Berleman said the Monan’s Rill community is a prime example of a community in the wildland-urban interface committed to stewarding fire-adapted land.
Kavinoky estimates he has single-handedly cleared overgrowth on about 90 acres with a chainsaw, estimating it takes him about two weeks to clear an acre of underbrush and trim lower limbs on trees.
His persistence is an illustration of what can be accomplished by one man, and even more with a community working together.
“What I saw is the potential there to create resilience in those ecosystems on the land they’re tending against things like drought, climate change and wildfire,” Berleman said.
Though devastating, the wildfire has given the community a chance to rebuild homes to be more resistant to fire. Its flames cleared out areas so dense with chamise, a type of evergreen shrub, it would be too dangerous to burn and laborious to clear by hand.
“There are some of us feeling really clear we’re not done with the land and the community, living together, stewarding the land,” said Thea Maria Carlson, who moved to Monan’s Rill in 2015.