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Bouverie wins $1 million to repair fire damage

Thousands of bright orange California poppies blaze in the grasslands at Bouverie Preserve, the 535-acre conservation gem in Sonoma Valley scorched four years ago by the Nuns fire.

A female mountain lion wearing a GPS collar attached by the preserve’s scientists and accompanied by her cub is roaming the woodlands along Stuart Creek, taking down fawns for food.

Nature has rebounded from the wildland blaze, which scorched 85 percent of the preserve, as it has for millennia in California, where life evolved with and still benefits from fire, said Jennifer Potts, the preserve’s resident resource ecologist,

“It’s how the plants thrive. It removes competition, stimulates new growth and kills pathogens like sudden oak death,” said Potts, who has a master’s degree in fire ecology from UC Berkeley.

Spotting an elderberry tree with yellow blossoms, Potts noted it was one of many native species that had popped up throughout the preserve after the fire.

But the preserve near Glen Ellen lost seven buildings burned to the ground by the Nuns fire that came roaring over the Mayacamas Mountains from Napa Valley in the early morning of Oct. 8, 2017 and eventually covered nearly 57,000 acres, destroyed 639 homes and killed two people.

The conflagration spared two irreplaceable structures — the home built by David Bouverie, who bought the property in 1938, and a house built for writer MFK Fisher — but Audubon Canyon Ranch, the nonprofit that owns the preserve, has yet to undertake rebuilding its facilities owing to a protracted insurance settlement.

It started when Julia Clothier, Audubon’s former education program manager who was promoted to chief operating officer in September 2018, took a look at the nearly $4.8 million insurance payment for the losses at Bouverie.

“I was shocked at what the settlement was,” she said. “It just seemed low.”

Conversations with others in the nonprofit sector put her onto The Greenspan Co./Adjusters International, a public adjuster based in South San Francisco, which Clothier contacted in April 2020, handing off her fruitless effort to negotiate a better deal.

In about 10 months, Greenspan wrangled an additional payment of just over $1 million, netting Audubon $857,894 after Greenspan’s 20 percent fee.

“Eighty percent of anything is better than 80 percent of nothing,” Clothier said.

The nonprofit’s ordeal is another example of the often arduous path wildfire survivors must tread to secure what they need from insurers to move on after disaster strikes. State reforms since the 2017 fires have sought to ease some of those burdens, especially for homeowners.

But for affected property owners, the most vexing challenge remains: How to ensure they have sufficient coverage to rebuild and that they actually receive that amount.

Jessica Bivens, the public adjuster at Greenspan who handled Audubon’s case, said her job is to make sure claimants “receive everything they’re entitled to” under their insurance policy.

Bivens, who worked for 14 years as an insurance company claims adjuster before joining Greenspan in 2008, said the companies cope with the inherent conflict between their customers’ interests and the need to make a profit by “keeping claims down.”

A public advocate recalculates the policyholder’s claim, taking on both the financial and psychological chore, she said. “Handling your insurance claim is like a part-time job,” Bivens said.

Preparation of Audubon’s claim included an inspection of the Bouverie site, she said, and the job wasn’t done with the filing of an amended claim.

“Then we had to push,” Bivens said. “I kept getting denial letters from the company. I don’t quit until I get five to seven no’s.”

But even with the $5.6 million it has now received, Audubon lacks sufficient resources to rebuild seven structures at Bouverie, one of four preserves it owns in Sonoma and Napa counties, Clothier said.

“The questions are now what do we have, what do we need,” she said.

Audubon’s 12-member board of directors is currently assessing its options, including a possible campaign to raise more money for the rebuild, Clothier said. The nonprofit operates on a $3.9 million annual budget, nearly half from an endowment and the rest from contributions, grants and requests.

Audubon, which owns three other preserves in Sonoma and Marin counties, was founded in 1962 by Martin Griffin, a physician and acclaimed conservationist who formerly owned Hop Kiln Winery in Healdsburg.

The preserve, which is at 13815 Highway 12 in Glen Ellen, is not open to the public but offers school tours and other visits by appointment.

Email Guy Kovner at guy.kovner@pressdemocrat.com.

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