Now that the fire has passed

An overview on the state of Tassajara two days after the 2008 Basin Complex Fire,
by David Zimmerman, Director

For more photos from the fire, please visit Mako Voelkel's photo album

Saturday, 7/12, 1:00pm

Fire coming over Hawk MountainIt’s been exactly 48 hours since the five of us who returned to Tassajara Zen Mountain Center to defend the monastery first met the primary waves of fire that arrived on July 10 at 1:00 p.m. It still amazes us—Abbot Steve Stücky, Mako Voelkel, Graham Ross, Colin Gipson, and myself—to recall the speed in which the fire descended and converged on Tassajara simultaneously from four sides: from Flag rock to the northeast, with 30- to 40-foot flames; from Hawk mountain to the northwest, rushing down right above the hill cabins with 10- to 15-foot flames; over the Hogback and Suzuki Roshi Memorial trail to the west, and from the south via the Overlook ridge, its progress cloaked by the canopy of trees above us. It was difficult to determine which head of fire would reach us first, so we split up to protect the hill cabins/satellite dish, the creek side of the Stone Office (our designated safety zone), where the wooden porch and arbor could have caught flame, and the Shop, where our propane and gasoline are stored. We fought the fire nonstop for six and a half hours using hoses connected to the standpipe system and Mark III pumps, along with hand shovels and a few fire extinguishers. We were stretched very thin trying to engage each new encroachment of the fire into Tassajara, at times with only one person per location struggling to arrest the fire’s progress, unassisted for up to an hour at a time. At 7:30 p.m. we finally felt that the fire was contained enough for us to stop to eat and regroup.

We’ve spent a majority of the hours since then taking turns being on patrol, continuing to put out spot fires with hoses and shovels, surveying the damage, making calls to loved ones, and trying to get some rest. The fire is still a presence, lurking in places seen and unseen. Throughout these last two days piles of leaves, trees, roots and ruins still burn, keeping the night patrols busy. Even yesterday, 24-hours after the fire, we were thrown off-guard when—just as we were finishing lunch—the woodshed across from the Shop burst into flames, and within minutes was raging so hot the trees above it and the hill across the road from it caught fire. Just minutes ago large, ominous plumes rose to the south and southeast of us, behind the Overlook trail ridge. We quickly deployed to turn on the building sprinklers, (aka “Dharma Rain”).

I’ll save for another time a detailed chronological account of our battle with the fire, which will be written up once the five of us have had a chance to more thoroughly review and recount the events. We’ll also send pictures of the fire and the aftermath as soon as we can.

How does Tassajara look now?

The central area of Tassajara is an island of green, gratefully untouched by the fire and looking almost ready for the return of residents and summer guests.

FirescapeBut when surveying the firescape around Tassajara, this is what one sees: lesions of blackened earth, burnt leaves and ash reach into Tassajara from the charred mountains around us in every direction. The mountains look bare and vulnerable, pricked with the skeletal remains of trees and a few hardy bushes and yucca. The trees that appear less affected, usually large oaks at the lower elevations, suffer scorched leaves and bark. One can clearly see how truly steep and rugged the mountains are that enclose this valley now that their covering of foliage is gone. I’m pained to think of the tremendous erosion, landslides, rockfall and flooding that will occur with the winter rains.


Woodshed RemainsOn either side of the road coming into Tassajara is scarred earth. None of us has yet to venture up the road beyond the spring box and water treatment plant. While the PVC pipes leading from the spring box are somewhat damaged by the fire, limiting the quantity of water entering the tanks, there’s still plenty of water given our current use. The water and filtration tanks remain thankfully untouched due to the fire line that had been cleared around them. Rock rubble and small boulders litter the upper parking lot, where the lumber truck sits with a broken windshield, having been parked too close to the mountain side. The right wing of the front gate is burnt where it meets the mountain wall. The metal frame of what was once a garden cart rests near the ruins of the lower parking lot wood shed. The birdhouse ruins still smolder, but its guardian oak tree, while scarred, seems to stand strong. Although the birdhouse had been wrapped on three sides with the protective heat reflective material provided by the Forest Service, the fire found its way below the deck and burned up from underneath. Black fingers reach into the work circle, also littered with rocks and ember remains. A small island of dry grass below the hill steps and west to the fire break that was cut down to the old bathhouse toilets remains miraculously untouched by the fire, as does most of the central part of Tassajara. Behind the hill cabins, the silver wrapping meant to protect the satellite phone dish lies trampled by fallen rock.

Map of Tassajara Central

Click to enlarge

As one heads to the west end of Tassajara, burnt ground rises from the right side of road up to the peak of Hawk mountain and beyond. While the terrain on either side of the road beyond the bathhouse is blackened and bare, the tent yurt and massage gazebo are largely untouched due to our firefighting efforts. The fence on the women’s side of the bath house is partially damaged. Burnt fire hoses and nozzles lie where they had been abandoned the day before when the 15 people in the valley evacuated in the late afternoon. At the flats, the cabin and casa were spared due to the fire lines and wrapping. The weights gazebo too was spared. The woodshed and compost shed were not so lucky, both heavily damaged. The suspension bridge at the far end of Tassajara only suffers a scarred footing. It’s fortunate that the Fenner Canyon inmate crew cleared a 10-foot wide swatch of earth around it, for it probably would have otherwise burnt. Across the creek, where the children’s playground once was located, the swing set stands untouched amidst the devastated landscape around it. A young buck lies fallen in its tracks, fur singed and budding antlers dusted with ash. The path to the Suzuki Roshi Memorial is passable despite a number of small landslides. The memorial site itself is fairly untouched, being all rock and earth. (Days earlier we had removed Suzuki Roshi’s memorial pole and stored it in the Kaisando.) Katagiri Roshi’s memorial post is seared on the lower half, but the calligraphy is still legible. Trudy Dixon’s post is untouched. The vista behind the hogback is a wasteland.

Tassajara - Green and burntTo the east end of Tassajara, descending from Flag Rock mountain, charred ground and rock rubble borders the central area, running from behind the Kaisando and Cabins 9 through 13 to the lower garden. Little remains of north fence of the garden, where the fire entered and damaged the upper terrace as far in as the large walnut tree. Further south the Yurt cabins remain untouched, saved by another fire line cut by students and widened by the Fenner Canyon crew. Just feet away from Yurt 2, however, are the ruins of the pool toilet, remnants of silver wrapping visible amidst the charred remains. The wheelchair accessible ramp leading up to it and built this past spring is also damaged. Large rocks lay strewn about the pool area, one having punched a square-foot hole into the redwood deck. Several pieces of pool furniture lay broken and melted by hot rocks that tumbled from the mountain. The pool water is brackish and depleted by our firefighting efforts. On the mountain side north of student housing more fingers of the fire’s reach can be seen, once again mostly stopped by the fire breaks cut by the inmates. The path past the suburbs is blocked by fallen trees and a major rockslide that was still smoldering this morning. Downstream, on either side of the creek is a five to ten foot-wide corridor of greenery and untouched earth, but beyond, more barren and blackened landscape. Roots and trunks of trees have been gashed by falling rocks. No one yet knows how the Narrows fared.

To the south, the meadow and the way leading to the Overlook trail is blocked by half of a fallen tree. Its other half remains standing, but both halves still harbor a fire in each of their cores. The Overlook ridge and trail suffered less damage at the bottom end, although a number of trees and fallen logs continued to burn throughout the night and day until, finally spent, their cremated remains tumbled into the creek below. The canopy of the trees on the Overlook, although severely singed, is still fairly intact for the first 200 feet or so up the hillside. Strangely, the embers on this hillside have burnt the longest, still glowing and even aflame 48 hours after the fire. The fire has yet to fully make its way through Willow Creek valley and to the confluence with Tassajara Creek at its eastern end, which is why we continue to see pluming to the south and southeast.

We’re not alone on this green island. We’ve seen canyon wrens, humming birds and robins, and have heard an owl on the east end. The stellar jays are quiet but present. Squirrels still scamper about on the green grass in front of the Stone Office. (Colin estimated he had seen 30 squirrels in the ruins of the compost shed, feasting on the now exposed treasure.) Deer nibbling on the still lush greenery of the valley are seen throughout by the patrols.

Gatorade bucketHose lines lay in various states of unfurl throughout Tassajara. Shovels, MacLeods and fire extinguishers are also scattered about. The Stone Office looks like a bomb shelter. The doors and windows are sealed with silver radiant heat protection. Empty bottles of Gatorade (the official drink of the Tassajara 2008 Fire) and cans of soda clutter the counters, having yet to make it to recycling. In one corner is a pile of MREs (meals ready to eat) and several cases of bottled water left behind by the fire crews. Fire fighting equipment, helmets, walkie-talkies, fire maps and towels lie about, ready to be used as needed. We’re simply too tired to try to tidy up. We have plenty of food and water, and the electricity is running despite the solar array not fully functioning. One phone line amazingly still works, providing us connection to the outside world.

The scent of charred wood and leaves seems to have seeped into our every pore. While there’s a haze lingering throughout the valley, it’s thankfully not very dense. It’s hard to tell if the grey before our eyes when looking at the mountains is a veil of smoke or the actual color of the landscape. Numerous rock slides are heard and seen throughout the day and night. The Tassajara creek flows mostly clear and unobstructed.

What saved Tassajara this time?

Boots outside the doorThe I-Ching symbols for “water over fire” on the hexagonal water tank one sees on the left just before arriving at Tassajara proclaim the reason for our survival. Of course, the very setting of Tassajara in a riparian corridor did much to spare us. There’s also no doubting that “Dharma Rain”—the sprinkler systems rigged onto many of the buildings by Greg Fain, Steph Wenderski, Johan Ostlund, Simon Moyes, and Graham Ross—was largely responsible for keeping the fire from entering Tassajara more deeply. Great gratitude for their wonderful work. Our Wisconsin and Mark III pumps as well as our extensive standpipe system got water where we needed it and with significant pressure most of the time. The five of us who returned to Tassajara—as well as those who remained after the second evacuation—also benefited greatly from the training and experience of Stuart Carlson and the advice of the other fire captains and personnel who supported us in the weeks leading up to July 10. The fire breaks that were cut, the endless raking and clearing of brush, the wrapping of particularly vulnerable buildings, and the numerous other preparations we made also greatly contributed to limiting the fire’s reach into the heart of Tassajara. Finally, the five of us in Tassajara at the time of the fire can say without hesitation that, despite these preparations, without people here to turn on the sprinkler systems and refill the pumps, and to directly engage the fire with water as it entered Tassajara, little would have remained.

What’s next?

We expect at least a week of waiting for the road to be safe enough to be cleared by bulldozers of rock and other debris so people can enter and help us to begin restoring Tassajara. Jamesburg is still threatened by the fire at the north end and may be evacuated at any moment. In the meantime Steve, Mako, Graham, Colin and I will continue our fire watch patrols, work on cataloging the damage and the repairs needed, flesh out the events of July 10, and try to get some rest.

Gratitude courses through this valley and our veins, for we and our community are well and safe, supported in a thousand ways known and unknown by the generosity and efforts of so many beings, so many bodhisattvas, so many buddhas. And finally, deep bows to the fire, whose undeniable dharma teaching of impermanence has earned our awed respect and attention.