The Bouverie Preserve, almost entirely overrun by the Nuns Fire during the week of Oct. 8, is celebrating its slow recovery by reopening to the public this month. Some elementary school classes have already walked the park with volunteers, and the first public guided nature walk is scheduled for Saturday, April 21.
“It will still be quite a while before it’s back to what we think of as normal,” said John Petersen, the preserve’s director who started at the 535-acre in 1986, when David Bouverie was still alive. “It was a terrible tragedy, but also a terrific opportunity.” The opportunity Petersen sees in the loss of half a dozen buildings, including the Gilman Hall education center, the director’s own home and a portion of founder Bouverie’s estate, is that it makes possible “blue-sky thinking.”
Bouverie Preserve is one of four nature preserves in Sonoma and Marin counties, owned and managed by Audubon Canyon Ranch, headquartered in Stinson Beach.
“It’s like a blank slate,” said Petersen several times during a walking tour of the preserve last week. “We can revise our education program, retooling the curriculum for – you guessed it – fire ecology.”
Several separate buildings, connected by covered walkways, used to comprise David Bouverie’s manor-like home and guest houses. Now all but the main home are gone, reduced to rubble and ash by the high-intensity fires of early October. Small crews of groundskeepers are still clearing up the debris.
MFK Fisher’s so-called Last House, built by Bouverie for the celebrated food writer in the 1970s and where she died in 1992, was also spared from flames. The fires surrounded her stucco home and figuratively knocked at the front door, but the house itself is completely untouched. Petersen thinks it was the large and healthy mature oak shading the house that “protected” it, like a mother shielding her offspring.
The Last House has been the focus of recent efforts to renovate it, refurnishing it with everything from cookbooks to furniture from Fisher’s time, as a possible special-events venue. On the evening the fires started, a fundraising dinner was held at Ramekins for the Last House; by early the next morning, it was surrounded by flames.
The Bouverie’s then-fire ecologist Sasha Berleman and two neighbors rallied to save the two structures, knocking down the portion of the Bouverie estate that was in flames and taking water from the swimming pool to create a bucket brigade to douse the fires.
Berleman had directed a controlled burn on the preserve just a few months before the fire, in late May, clearing out 17.5 acres of undergrowth. She credited the controlled burn with saving at least a portion of the preserve from greater damage.
Though she characterized the fire that swept through the preserve as a high-severity burn, with “scorched earth and baked soil,” Berlemen said at the time, “I have no doubt that if we had been able to do a controlled burn in the canyon, as we planned to do next year, the buildings would still be standing.”
A few hundred feet from the still-standing buildings, a sea of new green grasses covers an open field in part of which the controlled burn took place. On one side of the trail, colorful minute wildflowers – meadowfoam, red clover, lupine - spread up a small rivulet toward a glade.
Guided Nature Walks: Saturdays, April 21 (sold out), May 19. Begin at 10:00 a.m. and end at noon, up to 2.5 miles of walking. $20 suggested donation. Reservations required at eventbrite.com/e/guided-nature-walk-tickets-44380197365
Twilight Hike: Friday, June 1, from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m., up to 2.5 miles. Participants are divided into small groups and paired with a trained volunteer to explore mixed evergreen forest and flower-carpeted oak woodland. $20 per person suggested donation. Reservations required at eventbrite.com/e/twilight-hike-tickets-44378806204
Visitors of all ages are welcome. In order to participate, those under 18 must be accompanied by parent or legal guardian.
Contributions support the preservation, education and conservation science programs of Audubon Canyon Ranch.