Pepperwood Preserve readying for $5 million wildfire rebuild project

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How To Help

For more information about Pepperwood or to donate, go to https://www.pepperwoodpreserve.org/donate/.

Pepperwood Preserve is poised to join the rebuilding wave that has engulfed much of the North Bay since the voracious wildfires of 2017 destroyed nearly 8,500 homes and other structures in the region.

The education and research organization on a 3,200-acre tract in the Mayacamas Mountains northeast of Santa Rosa has architectural plans and county permits in hand, with a local contractor set to build.

“We are shovel ready,” said Lisa Micheli, president of the nonprofit foundation that operates the facility off Porter Creek Road.

But there’s a catch. Like many others who lost homes and businesses in the firestorm 19 months ago, Pepperwood found itself underinsured — by a whopping $1.25 million.

Pepperwood’s insurance is expected to provide about $3.75 million, enough to rebuild the two wood-frame homes and a barn incinerated by the Tubbs fire on its wind-driven rush down the Mark West corridor from Calistoga to Coffey Park, the Santa Rosa subdivision obliterated by the blaze.

But re-creating those structures, dating back to the 1950s, was never an option for an organization committed to conservation science and stewardship of the wildlands in its care since 2005.

“We felt like we needed to be an example,” Micheli said. “To do it greener, cleaner, better and more fire-resilient.”

So Pepperwood turned to Mithun, a San Francisco architectural firm known for sustainable designs that meld buildings and their occupants with the environment. “They were the only ones who understood all of our structures are about accessing the preserve,” Micheli said.

The property includes the headwaters of three creeks that flow into the Russian River and is home to 750 varieties of native plants and 150 wildlife species, including black bears, mountain lions, bobcats, coyotes, foxes and blacktail deer.

Hilltops in the preserve afford views of massive Mount St. Helena to the east, with the Santa Rosa Plain stretching for miles to the west.

For a builder, the foundation hired Earthtone Construction of Sebastopol, a 22-year-old firm also committed to sustainability.

“We’re thrilled because our ideas are aligned,” said Andy Bannister, chief executive and founder, referring to his firm’s pairing with Mithun.

The result: Plans for two new residences with concrete-paneled exteriors, mineral wool insulation, clay plaster interior walls and steel roofs laid atop fire-resistant sheeting. The materials are not fireproof, because almost nothing is, Bannister said, but they are “ignition-proof,” meaning they will not catch fire.

The new barn will be all steel, replacing the wood-paneled barn that was reduced to twisted steel framing in the fire’s wake. Pepperwood’s two old homes burned to the ground.

“We want to be a demonstration site for fire resilience,” Micheli said.

But the devotion to clean and green cost an extra $1.25 million, bringing Pepperwood rebuild cost to about $5 million. To cover the uninsured amount, Pepperwood has launched a fundraising effort called “Rising from the Ashes.”

Pepperwood and Bannister are anxious to get started, but Micheli said she wants to have half of the campaign goal — about $625,000 — in hand before the work starts.

“People want to invest in the project,” she said, and the foundation also wants people “who really believe in our mission” to be on hand for the groundbreaking.

Margie Shurgot, who started in November as Pepperwood’s director of advancement, said she hopes about 20 major donations, along with small contributions from the community, can fulfill the campaign goal.

How To Help

For more information about Pepperwood or to donate, go to https://www.pepperwoodpreserve.org/donate/.

On Friday, donations had covered a quarter of the goal, Micheli said.

Every year, Pepperwood raises about $2.5 million to cover operating expenses, with roughly equal amounts from three sources: individual donors, foundations and fees for service, including government contracts.

Herb and Jane Dwight of Healdsburg, who financed acquisition of the property and construction of the $9 million Dwight Center, the foundation’s headquarters, make an annual donation that covers administrative costs, so all other donations support Pepperwood programs.

“Rising from the Ashes” marks the first time Pepperwood has raised money for a specific improvement.

The rebuild’s primary feature is the $2.5 million Mountain House and Visiting Scholars’ Center, a duplex that will be the assistant preserve manager’s residence on one side, with housing for rotating scholars on the other side. Both units will be about 1,500 square feet, with a 1,200-square foot outdoor courtyard in between.

It will be built on the site of a 2,600-square-foot, five-bedroom residence lost in the fire.

A nearly 1,900-square-foot preserve manager’s home, with a covered wraparound deck of nearly 1,000 square feet, will cost $1.5 million.

The barn will be replaced by a 2,000-square-foot shop, with a vaulted ceiling and small mezzanine level, and a covered outdoor visitor area of 2,500 square feet at a cost of $1 million.

The wildfire burned 95 percent of the preserve and came to the edge of the massive Dwight Center, but the concrete, steel and glass structure survived. It required an $80,000 cleanup of smoke and ash that infiltrated the building, but a blackout that cut off the ventilation system and sprinklers averted worse damage.

Tree roots smoldered underground for two months after the fire, and 70% of the preserve is still off limits — except for staff and scientists wearing hard hats — because scorched, standing trees can take up to four years to fall.

There’s little doubt that fire will come again to Pepperwood, Micheli said, noting the Tubbs fire and the Hanly fire of 1964 both ignited in Calistoga and followed nearly the same westward path, including Pepperwood, into Santa Rosa. The Hanly fire stopped at what was then the city’s edge.

The forested, rugged Mark West corridor, aligned with hot, dry Diablo winds, provides the perfect breeding ground for a future firestorm, Micheli said.

“It’s a scenario we absolutely have to prepare for,” she said.

But the “silver lining” to the Tubbs fire, she said, acknowledging the catastrophic loss of 22 lives, is the major upgrade to Pepperwood’s facilities and its technology for devising fire detection and defense strategies.

“This is the foundation for the next century at Pepperwood,” Micheli said. “We are in it for the long haul.”

For information on donating to Pepperwood Preserve, go to pepperwoodpreserve.org/donate.

You can reach Staff Writer Guy Kovner at 707-521-5457 or guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter @guykovner.

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