The River Fire reaches the neighborhoods of CSUMB faculty members

In 2010 communication design professor Kevin Cahill and his husband and chief information officer of California State University, Monterey Bay (CSUMB) Chip Lenno moved into a beautiful mid-century modern home. Wanting to sustain the rich history of their home, they hired the construction company that originally built it in 1952, Tombleson General Contractors, to help them remodel. Cahill and Lenno were delighted to move into their new home and shared it together for 10 years. Sadly, what they knew as their hillside sanctuary burned to ash after being destroyed by the River Fire. 

The River Fire blazed throughout Salinas over the past few weeks and threatened the homes of various CSUMB faculty members. The fire spread to the neighborhood of Cahill and Lenno, resulting in the tragic loss of their 68-year-old home in Pine Canyon. 

Their 4-acre home was a countryside paradise where deer, turkey, rabbits and foxes could be observed around the property and was decorated with their 20-year-old Cranbrook alumni furniture collection. After losing virtually everything from the fire, Cahill and Lenno compare their experience to losing a loved one.

Cahill and Lenno evacuated from their mid-century modern home on Aug. 16 and drove back five days later to find their house completely destroyed. “We looked up the hill and where our living room should’ve been, there was nothing,” Lenno said. 

Cahill and Lenno’s property is covered in rubble after being demolished by the River Fire. (Photo/Kevin Cahill)

The couple met at CSUMB in the ‘90s and have deep roots within Monterey County, which enriched their house with long-lasting memories. “Kevin and I met at CSUMB and fell in love here … we’ve both been with CSUMB for over 20 years and to be able to land here is very important,” Lenno said. 

Cahill and Lenno are currently living in on-campus housing while they do an entire rebuild of their home. Despite enduring such a tragedy, the couple feels secure knowing they are deeply supported by their neighbors, who have sent them care packages filled with homemade bread and other comfort foods. 

Lenno said he and Cahill are “incredibly fortunate in that the outpour from the campus community and our friends and family has just been amazing.” 

CSUMB collaborative health and human services professor Stephanie McMurtrie was also affected by the natural disaster. She was forced to evacuate her home of one year in Salinas when the River Fire approached her neighborhood. A strike of lightning hit a hill near McMurtrie’s home that created the nearby fire and surrounded her street with huge plumes of smoke. McMurtrie said the strike was “the loudest lightning we’d ever heard and it just lit up the sky.” 

Although smoke was approaching McMurtrie’s street, the Salinas authorities had yet to announce any updates about the fire in her area. After a few hours, the smoke evolved into a visible fire. “I walked to our neighbors and we could see flames, and I knew that was the time to leave,” McMurtrie said. She then decided to gather a few items from her house and evacuated with her two children.  

As soon as she and her family left their home the authorities rushed in to announce a mandated evacuation of her neighborhood. McMurtrie said “sheriffs then came flying up the road telling everyone to leave.” Within half an hour the flames were burning their neighbor’s driveway. Luckily, she discovered her home was undamaged by the fire when returning from the evacuation. 

McMurtrie was extremely grateful to come back to an untouched home as other houses on her street were damaged by the River Fire. She believes experiencing the natural disaster changed her perception of her home.

“I’m still processing. I dreamt last night about fire and got up in the middle of the night to look for fire because there was still lots of smoke. I couldn’t help but think of all the family things I could’ve lost,” McMurtrie said.

Cahill and Lenno plan to reconstruct their home over the next two years and want to design it with a continuation of their Cranbrook alumni furniture collection. The couple sees their rebuilding process as a silver lining in losing their home. “We’re going to move back into a home that we’ll like even more,” Cahill said. 

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