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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.

Just downhill from the Narnia of Monan’s Rill, there is a place that has become a sort of a pilgrimage site for some members of this community since the fire displaced them, a sign that a future may be possible on this land in an era of increasing wildfires.

On one side of a year-old earthen scar from a dozer’s blade, the fire left blackened trees with ghostly leaves irreparably scorched.

But the fire stopped at that scar, burning all around a 6-acre area of green ferns and sedges, regrowth from an intentional fire set last year to clear overgrowth.

“It’s not luck at all. The fire burned all around it,” Berleman said. “We’ve seen it before.”

Reducing the fir seedlings, brush and forest duff can have a dramatic impact even with a major fire, creating pockets that repel fire simply because there is not enough to burn across the forest floor.

Kavinoky’s stepson, Chris Schaefer, was early to return to the land after the fire, finding a way before the official evacuation orders were lifted. He took a photograph of how the fire burned around that 6-acre spot and shared it with his community.

The Glass fire burned around a 6-acre area of green ferns and sedges at Monan’s Rill, regrowth from an intentional fire set last year to clear overgrowth. (Chris Schaefer)
The Glass fire burned around a 6-acre area of green ferns and sedges at Monan’s Rill, regrowth from an intentional fire set last year to clear overgrowth. (Chris Schaefer)

Carlson, who lives on the property with her wife, said that photograph offered evidence there may be a way for this community to continue living safely on the land in an era of mega blazes. Standing at the site for the first time last week, she said her determination became even more clear.

Carlson moved onto the land with her wife in 2015 when the Valley fire burned from Cobb Mountain to Middletown. Though 25 miles away in Lake County, Carlson said she and others saw the potential for disaster in their own rural enclave then. Then in 2017, the Tubbs fire came within 2 miles.

They live in the one home that didn’t burn, the first house built by two of the community’s founders, Mary and Russ Jorgensen, former Freedom Riders who rode buses through the segregated South to protest racial injustice.

“Seeing that picture, that was when I was 100% sure I was going back,” Carlson said. “That picture was the evidence I needed that this theory that prescribed burns could protect us is true.”

Of the 30 residents, at least 12 adults and six of the children are at this point determined to rebuild. Others are still reeling from the loss.

Though some may feel it is safer than ever to rebuild on the land, “that doesn’t mean it’s a magic wand” and all risk is gone, said resident Amy Robinson. She is married to Schaefer and they have two children, Vinca, 13, and Milo, 10.

Robinson is preparing to move their family into a long-term rental despite sleepless nights where she walks all the familiar paths around houses in her mind’s eye.

Robinson and her husband always planned to build their own house on the land someday and she’d even sketched plans and design ideas. She’s been surprised at how much she has dearly missed her old house, the light pouring through windows and skylights and how each day was filled with birdsong.

At the property Wednesday, her eyes kept searching for the trail leading around a neighbor’s house where there were always daffodils in spring. Her daughter misses the sound of crickets.

Her son, Milo, was diligently working on a new home design, having already uploaded Schaefer’s sketches for a new house into a computer program, coming up with his own ideas, his visions and energy, a buoying force for their family.

A day after the fire destroyed their home and most of their belongings, Milo told his mom he was grateful.

“He said, ’I feel so lucky to have lived at the first Monan’s Rill,’ ” Robinson said.

You can reach Staff Writer Julie Johnson at 707-521-5220 or julie.johnson@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @jjpressdem.

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