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Fire training at Kenwood Ranch

Fire training at Kenwood Ranch


Burned-over future resort offers fire training opportunities

By Jay Gamel

Chuck Conner is happy to have local fire agencies training crews and new recruits on the complexities of wildland firefighting at the 186-acre site of the future Kenwood Ranch resort on Campagna Lane, off Sonoma Highway. The property suffered extensive tree and vegetation damage in both the 2017 and 2020 catastrophic wildfires. Conner, a Santa Rosa-based consultant, is project manager for the Yucaipa Group, LLC, which bought the property last August for an undisclosed sum. Yucaipa is the third owner of the long-standing effort to develop the property once known as Graywood Ranch. Former owners Tohigh Property Investment, based in Hong Kong, paid approximately $41 million for the property in 2014. “We’ve been engaged with professional fire management and safety developing reforestation strategy and best practices to help manage the property going forward,” Connor said. “We want to create a ranch that will be ecologically sound, and sustainable, with reduced risk to property and the surrounding community.” The ranch has development entitlements to build an up-to-50room inn below Hood Mountain, plus 10 residential lots and a 10,000case winery on the valley floor near the highway. At this point, however, Conner says the new owners have not decided what will be built or when. Cleaning up the property and evaluating it in light of new conditions is the first order of business.

A dozen firefighters from the Sonoma Valley Fire District (SVFD) were gathered around a pickup bed on Friday, April 23, listening to Battalion Chief Sean Lacy deliver the fine points of keeping a chain saw bar well oiled during use. Earlier in the day, each participant had a chance to pick up, start, and wield a chain saw to cut already downed, burnt wood.

“Many of these guys have never even held a chain saw,” Capt. Gabe Stirnus said. Stirnus is the SVFD training officer, with over 22 years in the business of fighting fires, the last 13 working with the SVFD. “They are learning chain saw safety and the dynamics of working a fire line.”

SFVD has taken on 17 new firefighters, both paid and volunteer, in the past two years. Whether they’ve used a chain saw before or not, they all have to complete certified basic training in safety and use procedures, Stirnus said. Training is a major part of life for all firefighters, learning how to use both complex and simple equipment, communications, and techniques for fighting fires and saving lives.

The new owners began working with Calfire and local fire departments since the Glass Fire last September, and are extending training offers to fire departments including Kenwood, Petaluma and Calfire for now.

While clearing some downed trees and brush clearly has some benefit to the property, it is a mutual benefit, Conner said, and is a very small part of the larger remediation work ahead for any future building.

Last December, James MacNair and other arborists were hired to develop a systematic approach to cataloging and evaluating all the trees on the property, and tree removal has already begun.

“We are planting valley oaks” Conner said. “We want a natural look and oak habitat is the way to go.” They will be considering a variety of vegetation management options, including controlled burns, if appropriate for the property. Removing understory, accumulated brush, and weeds is also on the agenda, as well as cleaning up and restoring Graywood Creek, which flows into Sonoma Creek near Highway 12.

“We’re doing what we can going forward to lessen the risk in the future,” Conner said.