An Account of the Tassajara 2008 Basin Complex Fire
By David Zimmerman, with assistance from
Steve Stücky, Colin Gipson, Graham Ross and Mako Voelkel
THE DAY THE FIRE ARRIVED
Thursday, July 10: Day 18 since the first evacuation of June 23
The events on the day of the fire’s long awaited arrival are difficult to fully sequence chronologically, particularly the afternoon hours. We—the so-called Tassajara Five (Steve Stücky, David Zimmerman, Mako Voelkel, Graham Ross and Colin Gipson)—engaged the fire on numerous fronts as it entered the valley, working alone, in pairs or as a group for varying lengths of time as each new manifestation of the inferno dictated. While it quickly became obvious to us that five monks with nominal fire fighting skills weren’t enough to fully protect Tassajara, our monastic training had taught us to simply offer our best, whole-hearted effort, unattached to the results yet still aware of our preference to save our spiritual homestead.
The fire, like any dedicated teacher, challenged us to constantly be attentive. For weeks the sangha—repeatedly informed that the fire was approximately “three days away” —had been preparing for an event that might or might not occur. Some of us even expressed impatience with the fire’s initially slow progression, wanting it to come sooner so we could all just “get on with things.” But during the hours that the blaze was finally upon us, the tracking of time gave way to the pure immediacy of the moment. What was most compelling during these hours, and which in reflection remains the most satisfying, is the constant vigilance and effort that the fire required. It was a sesshin through and through, a demanding schedule of pure presence in which one utterly let go of a known outcome. There were undeniable moments of fear and anxiety, especially when we understood the reality that the fire was descending into Tassajara fast and from all sides, rather than creep down one slope at a time as had initially been suggested by several professional fire fighters. But there was little time to entertain fear, so fear quickly gave way to our effort to fully meet our belated guest and the tasks at hand.
What follows is a chronology, as best as we can recreate it, of our engagement with the fire.
Click to enlarge
This map of central Tassajara is intended to help people not familiar with the grounds. To the west of this map are the outlying areas where the Bathhouse, the Yurt, and the Flats can be found. To the East, student housing. To the south, across the Tassajara Creek, is the Overlook Ridge and Trail.
Greg Fain, Zen Center Treasurer, calls from Jamesburg to let us know that he and President Robert Thomas were unable to make it past the sheriff’s road block at the Nason’s ranch, which is also the entrance to the Los Padres National Forest. It seems fairly certain that no one else will make it into Tassajara to assist us until the Incident Command feels the road is safe. Branch director Jack Froggatt had in fact informed us the day before, during our encounter with him on the ridge as we were evacuating, that from here on, as long as the mandatory evacuation order was in place, Tassajara residents could only return with an escort from fire fighters or forest service personnel. As we are certain that the fire compromised sections of the road near Church Creek Valley during the night, we acknowledged that it could be several days before anyone else comes to our assistance. David, as designated communications point person for the group, radios Steve, who is waiting near the ridge for Greg and Robert, to let him know that they won’t be meeting him as originally planned. Steve radios back acknowledgment and to say that the fire is now 50 yards from the shoulder of road at Lime Point.
The five of us meet for breakfast in the Stone Office, during which we outline tasks for the morning. Some of us expect the fire could possibly arrive today given the forecasted weather conditions and its proximity the night before. The day is already starting out at a warm 72 degrees. We decide to finish stocking the office with essentials and to staple up additional radiant heat-reflective wrap to more thoroughly establish it as our safe space in case the fire overwhelms us.
We continue taking turns patrolling throughout the morning. Mako hikes up the hogback and overlook trails, but sees nothing particularly noteworthy.
The air temperature is noticeably hotter as Colin joins Mako for a second hike up the hogback and then the overlook trail to check on the fire’s progression. They report seeing large dark roiling clouds nearby out of the south and the north, but as of yet no flame. Not wanting to get caught by fire on the trail, they decide to head back down.
Steve, who had been the patrol in the early morning, wakes up from a nap and decides to drive up the road again to assess the fire’s location. When he gets to the Church Creek trail he sees the fire coming down through the pine trees on the trail near the road, and it appears to be moving fairly fast. Recognizing he can safely go no further, he radios back that the fire is at the Church Creek trailhead and that he’s turning around to return to ZMC. It is clear now that the fire will reach Tassajara shortly by way of the road.
Graham goes to check the east end of Tassajara. As he pauses momentarily next to the suburbs, (the last student cabins before the path trails off beyond the creek), freaky warm winds blow ash like snowflakes in a horizontal wind storm, changing direction and angles every ten seconds or so. Unsettled, he decides to head up to the solar panels for a better view. From there he sees large, black plumes of smoke everywhere, on all sides of the mountains facing Tassajara. Concerned for everyone’s safety, especially Steve who is on the road and Mako and Colin who are on the overlook trail, he radios the inquiry: “Where is everyone?” We all respond with our locations and status. Graham then quickly descends from the solar array to the hill cabins, where what he sees to the south stops him short: a wall of 40-50 foot flames just cresting the overlook ridge, approximately 300-400 feet from the creek. He quickly announces this new discovery to everyone over the walkie-talkie.
At this point we decide to start the pumps and our jury-rigged rooftop sprinkler system (affectionately called “Dharma Rain” ) to begin wetting down the buildings and raising the relative humidity in the valley. Mako starts the pool pump while Graham and Colin attend to the mid- and east-Mark IIIs. (The mid-Mark pumps creek water directly into the stand pipe system while the east-Mark pump refills the pool.) Steve goes to the east end to turn on the sprinklers and hose down buildings there. David focuses on the sprinklers in the central area and at the bath house. With the pumps and Mark IIIs running, Colin next heads to the shop and Graham to the flats cabin to start the sprinklers in these areas. “Dharma Rain” is now fully engaged.
Colin, Mako and David return to the central area and begin to wrap the wood deck behind the Stone Office, the most vulnerable part of our safe zone. The plan to also wrap the eaves of the building is abandoned; there just isn’t time now. Colin leaves to gear up while Mako continues wrapping a little while longer. David finalizes affixing wrapping to the windows and doors of the office, calls Jamesburg to let them know the status of the fire, and then suits up. When Mako comes from behind the building to the front lawn she sees flames rapidly coming down near the road above the parking lot, on the steep southern exposure of Hawk Mountain above the hill cabins, and looming over the cliff-like face of Flag Rock. She runs into the office, grabs her camera and takes a brief video before gearing up.
Having suited up, Steve and Graham head out to the flats, intending to wet down the area. They lay out hose and discuss the possibility of back-burning, but upon seeing a “ball” of rolling flames and smoke plumes coming towards them from over the hogback, they realize there isn’t enough time. For their own safety, Graham suggests they “should get out of there.” Steve, feeling confident that the firebreaks in the area are fairly reliable, agrees and the two decide to check on things elsewhere. As they are heading back to the central area, they hear Mako over the radio announce that fire is coming down Hawk Mountain and Flag Rock.
While Steve and Graham are out at the flats, Colin heads up to the shop to keep an eye on the propane and gasoline areas. If these combustible resources were to be compromised, given their location at the narrow mouth of the valley and the only road out of the monastery, the situation could turn dire quickly. Once there he also sees that the fire is running down the overlook ridge on the south side of Tassajara creek, and radios to everyone another warning. In response Mako opens hose behind the Stone Office and wets down the deck, trees and lawn. David opens line on the Stone and Pine guest rooms as Dharma Rain doesn’t appear to be working properly on these cabins.
It is frighteningly clear to us now that the fire is not only descending, but actually converging 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; rolling over the hogback and Suzuki Roshi Memorial trail to the west, and from the south via the overlook ridge, its progress sometimes cloaked by the canopy of trees above us. With Dharma Rain operational, and the pleading of our evacuated sangha members to not try to “fight” the fire directly still in our ears, several of us momentarily weigh whether we should return to the protection of our designated safe zone and wait out the passage of the fire’s “head” through the valley, or try our best to lessen the brunt of the approaching flames. But the unspoken, collective response that manifests is this: to do our best to fully engage each new encroachment of the fire into Tassajara as long as we could, or until the situation demanded a different course of action.
David returns to the office and calls George Haines, CAL FIRE Unit Chief, to let him know that the fire is coming down on all sides. As he had done the day before, David once again asks George if he has been able to arrange for any last minute help from CAL FIRE. (CAL FIRE is known to take a more hands-on approach to structure protection during wilderness fire fighting than their federal colleagues, the U.S. Forest Service, whose representatives had told Zen Center staff earlier in the week that they wouldn’t be providing any onsite fire fighting personnel at Tassajara because they deemed the valley, with its single road egress, too dangerous to commit ground resources to saving buildings.) George once more lets David know that there won’t be any assistance coming, and suggests that we should just stay close to our safe zone until the fire passes and that we’ll be fine. David asks George if it’s ok for us to back burn, and the Unit Chief gives his consent, confirming our legal right to back burn given the imminent danger to life and property. He includes instructions to ignite the back burn from the highest point down to the lowest point, with a clear path of egress in view.
Seeing Graham and Mako go up to the hill cabins to keep the fire at bay and to hose the buildings down, David radios to them George’s consent and instructions for back burning. He then hoses the area around the steps and the lower part of the hillside to provide safe egress for Graham and Mako and to keep the fire from coming further down should it pass the cabins.
Graham lights a “flare on a stick” that he had rigged earlier in the morning and tries to back burn just east of Hill Cabin 3 when the fire is approximately ten to fifteen feet away. In some places the back burn meets the rest of the fire while in others the area is too wet to ignite. In either case, the fire there has calmed down and is no longer endangering the cabins, so Graham exits along the fire line cut on west side of the hill and heads towards the bathhouse.
Meanwhile, Steve goes up to the shop area to join Colin in protecting it from burning embers and rolling fires. Colin spends the first hour or so at the shop, hosing things down and engaging the fire as it slips down the hillsides on three sides at the monastery’s entrance.
When Graham arrives at the bathhouse the sight of the entire western area on fire and the memory of the flames coming over the hogback convinces him that there is nothing left beyond. He calls in over the radio: “The bathhouse is on fire.” Unsure where to begin, he turns on a standpipe and chooses first to hose down a burning fence and tree adjacent to the women’s side of the bathhouse, where fire’s immediately threatening the structure, and then continues engaging the fire throughout the area to the west of the bathhouse. It is only when he remembers that the grounds near the tent yurt are also on fire, threatening the fabric and wood structure that he calls for help.
In response, Mako and David, not entirely sure for a short while where around the bathhouse Graham is calling from, arrive and begin to lay out hose line on the eastside of the structure. After Graham radios a few more requests for help over the radio, they realize he’s on the far side, somewhat obscured by smoke. While David hoses fire coming down to the road from Hawk Mountain and threatening the bathhouse on the east side, as well as any path of egress back to the central area, Mako goes to Graham’s assistance. She relieves Graham of his hose so he can take time out to recover from smoke inhalation. After he recovers enough to no longer feel nauseous, he heads east to the other side of Tassajara to refuel the pool and east-Mark pumps.
Meanwhile, the fire continues to surround the tent yurt. Having calmed the flames around the bathhouse, Mako turns her attention to the next threatened structure. Steve now arrives and joins Mako in trying to get water to the backside of yurt, but can only send water raining over the top to the other side because there isn’t enough hose length to come at it directly from behind. Seeing that step of the yurt deck is in flame, Steve pries it away with a shovel, and then Mako hoses down the burning wood. Mako and Steve continue for quite some time with hoses and shovels to keep fire from the tent yurt as well as the bathhouse bathroom at the base of the Suzuki Roshi memorial trail. Steve shifts his attention occasionally to also attend to the women’s side of the bathhouse, using a bucket and water from the outdoor plunge to quell the persistent fires there.
Seeing flames continue to descend down the overlook hillside behind the Stone and Pine rooms and the Stone Office, David douses several fires across the creek and then continues to wet the buildings and grounds where Dharma Rain doesn’t reach. Satisfied that the area is safe for a while, he makes a quick call to co-Abbot Paul Haller and Dana Velden to let them know the status of the situation thus far. He reports that the fire’s descent has slowed, and that it first seemed to have done so when it was approximately 75 feet from the floor of the valley. The likely cause is the humidity in the air from both the riparian corridor and from Dharma Rain. The moisture in the air seems to have slowed the fire down enough to allow us to engage it more easily than it at first seemed possible given its initial rapid descent down the upper mountain slopes.
Colin reports over the walkie-talkie that fire is advancing down the hill behind the “birdhouse” cabin, which is perched on a steep rock slope 50 feet above the work circle. Burning leaves, embers and rocks are also trickling down the east side of Hawk Mountain, threatening the gate house cabins. Quickly finishing up his call with Paul and Dana, David joins Colin in putting out these fires. Steve arrives from the west end to help as well.
On his way to refuel the pool pump Graham sees that fire has entered the lower garden from the Flag Rock mountainside, burning fence posts and the upper terrace as far in as the large walnut tree. Graham arrests the fire’s progress with water hoses, saving the main flower beds from damage. (What the fire doesn’t destroy, deer will devour in the following weeks.) Only later, after he has refueled the pool pump, does Graham see that the pool bathroom and part of the ramp leading up to it is also aflame. He starts a hose on this structure as well, but the bathroom is beyond saving. His concern now was to keep the fire from spreading to the Yurt cabins just five feet away.
David scouts the lower east side, focusing on dousing fire and debris rolling down the Flag Rock mountainside towards the redwood guests cabins west of the garden and the student housing beyond the pool. He also hoses down several large logs aflame on the far side of the creek.
After she decides that the tent yurt area is mostly under control, Mako continues westward and discovers fires all over the flats area: the woodshed, the compost shed, and numerous brush piles. The hoses out here—abandoned during yesterday’s fire training activity due to the sudden evacuation—are tangled and heavy with water, making it difficult to move and access them. Mako alternates between the various fires, putting hose on the largest flames. When she gets to the compost shed she arrives to find that many hoses and nozzles have been burnt. She tries a fire extinguisher on the far end of it, but it has no effect on the now entrenched flame. Searching somewhat desperately, she finally finds one unburned hose and a slightly melted nozzle that works, but the pressure at the last standpipe in Tassajara is low, providing inadequate water. She radios that the compost shed is on fire and that she needs a new nozzle. Steve and David rush to her aid, David bringing her a new nozzle. Steve attempts to reach the woodshed fire, but time is again lost because of the water-ladened and tangled hose lines. David runs between compost shed and wood shed, offering support to both Steve and Mako untangling lines and searching for additional hose that isn’t burnt. At one point he notices that the massage gazebo fence has caught on fire, and starts putting it out with a shovel and dirt as no other hose lines are available until Steve momentarily diverts from the woodshed fire. After a lengthy period of time, when they feel the fires have been tamed, Steve and David head back to scout other areas in Tassajara, leaving Mako to attend to a number of still smoldering smaller fires at the flats.
Steve joins Colin at the shop. Rocks can be heard tumbling from steep hillside bordering the east side of upper parking lot, where the lumber truck is parked. Steve notices and moves the vehicle further away from danger, but the windshield on the right side is already shattered.
Colin in the meantime sees that the right wing of the front gate fence is on fire, ignited by embers rolling down the hillside. He grabs a few fire extinguishers and puts it out, and afterwards returns to the shop. But a short time later he observes that gate fire has flared up again, so he radios that “the temple gate is on fire.” Steve, who is still nearby by, uses his shovel to disengage the burning section of the fence as there is no hose close at hand. David arrives with another fire extinguisher and succeeds in smothering the stubborn fire. Eventually Steve is able to connect more hose lengths to finally reach close enough to fully douse the fence. While he is doing this he sees flames among the pine needles carpeting the shingles of the gate roof. With water he is able to quickly arrest the spread of the fire on the roof, leaving only a few shingles slightly scorched.
Around this time a moment of humorous miscommunication occurs when Colin radios David with a request for some Gatorade, and then Mako, a moment later, radios that the Gatorade is on fire. Confused, Colin restates that he’s asking for Gatorade to drink, and Mako clarifies that a pile of Gatorade bottles abandoned the day before at the flats during the training activity is on fire. David swings by the walk-in refrigerator and delivers Gatorade shortly thereafter to everyone.
After the front gate seems safe enough to be left unattended, Colin and Steve return to their vigil of the shop area as embers continue falling from the hillsides. A brief time later Colin spots flames above the work circle and radios that the birdhouse is on fire. He rushes to get a hose on the fire, but within minutes announces to everyone that, “The birdhouse is toast.” The conflagration has consumed everything. The only appropriate response now is to keep the fire from spreading. Graham, just having finished putting out the fire at pool bathroom, happens to be walking by, and hearing Colin’s announcement, rushes up the hill steps. He lays out line to the birdhouse and starts hosing it down as well as the big oak next to it. Colin focuses on watering behind the gatehouse to keep the embers from starting that building on fire as well.
Shortly after, Mako realizes that the flats woodshed fire has reignited and grown even larger, taking hold of all three wood stacks and the wood splitter itself. Concerned about a possible explosion, she radios Graham to inquire if there is gasoline in the tank of the wood splitter as she needs to get closer due to lack of hose pressure. The smoke is dense and prohibitive at times, forcing her to retreat occasionally to catch her breath and recover from the nausea. David returns to help put water on the conflagration, but is equally frustrated with the low water pressure. Mako radios a request that the Mark III be brought back to the area. Quickly Graham and Colin arrive at the flats to set up the third Mark III creek-side, which finally (after sorting out the mess of crisscrossing hoses) provides more water pressure and hose line for the fires. Mako, David and Colin spend at least a half hour getting the fire under control. Mako and David then head east on continued scouting while Colin stays behind to finish dousing the area.
The crash of rocks and embers is frequently heard as they tumble against the back wall ruins of the old bathhouse from the overlook hillside, possibly threatening the hot springs pump room. David discovers a fire smoldering in rubble of an abandoned plunge and hoses it down. Afterwards he calls Jamesburg to update the crew there on our status.
During his call (approximately 4:40 pm) he is given an urgent message by the Jamesburg staff (who received the message from Jordon Thorn, Tanto at City Center) to call Chuck Dixon, a forest service information officer, about an offer for air support. David calls Chuck’s number but only gets a voicemail, on which he leaves a detailed message suggesting areas where a water drop would be helpful. However, Chuck never returns the call and no air support ever arrives.
Burning leaves and embers continue to slip down the hill behind the gatehouse, but Dharma Rain and some hose work by David and Colin keep it from igniting the gatehouse. At one point fire coming down the hill from the solar array threatens the conduits and other plastic items at the southern end of the lower parking lot. While Steve is able to douse this fire before it burns the conduits completely, the lines sustain enough damaged to disrupted power from the arrays for weeks afterwards.
On the mountainside between the shop and the kaisando, a continuous dribble of embers and rock debris requires renewed attention. Steve pulls a hose behind the garden shed and is able to hose down the hillside, including the brush that had been cut in clearing around Tassajara and tossed into Cabarga Creek which, in hindsight, was too close to vulnerable buildings. Colin brings another hose from the Cabarga bridge standpipe on the creek side of the kaisando to contribute to its defense by wetting down the hillside. Due to their attentiveness, the founder’s hall is spared any damage.
Sometime in the late afternoon, as the activity of the fire in the valley seems to have quieted down somewhat, David returns calls from Robert Thomas and Dana Velden at City Center who have been trying to reach someone at Tassajara for the last several hours to hear how everyone is. They put David on speaker phone for the others in the room and he informs them of the damages and conditions of the fire up to this point. David pauses for a moment, and then says, “I think we saved Tassajara.”The group at City Center erupts into cheers.
At approximately 6:15 pm Mako exchanges her drenched gear for dry clothes and sets off to take photos of the burned out areas to the west. She waves at a helicopter passing low over Tassajara at the flats and apparently surveying the damage and taking photos. Mako wonders if Jack Froggatt is in the helicopter.
We meet briefly in the work circle and assess the status of the fire and our own well-being. It seems that we have mostly halted the fire’s main foray through Tassajara, but now need to be sure no new spotting or eruptions occur.We take a group photo on the moon lawn and then spend the next half hour focusing on dousing spot fires along the parameters or at least cooling as best we can any active isolated flames. There is still much smoldering happening, particular within piles of leaves, the hollows and bases of trees, and fallen dry logs that are ideal for housing fire.
We finally break to regroup and enjoy a celebratory dinner of leftover baba ganoush, pita bread and tabouleh, as well as more Gatorade. We recount the events of the afternoon, and then schedule night patrol shifts of two people rotating every four hours through until morning.
David and Colin volunteer to cover the first patrol from 8:00 pm until 12:00 am. Various spot fires continue to burn or reignite throughout the night, and burning logs, branches and pine cones tumble down the mountainsides, often casting sparks in their wake. A large tree trunk across from the dining room rolls down from the overlook hillside, burning intensely. There is concern about spotting to the other side of the creek or to the netting of dried branches above igniting into a canopy fire. David climbs onto the roof of the dining room porch to get best angle for hosing down the tree trunk, but the fire refuses to be extinguished. It continues to burn and smolder for the next several days.
The patrols continue all night in groups of two (except for the early morning shift, when we think it is safe enough to have just one person scouting), working numerous spot fires and refueling the pumps every three hours. The sound of Dharma Rain is a constant presence and reassurance throughout the night.
THE DAY AFTER
Friday, July 11: Day 19 since the first evacuation of June 23
From Keith at Jamesburg we learn that the fire had burned over 9,000 acres the day before, perhaps the largest spread in one day since the Basin Complex fires began. We just happened to have been smack in the middle of this largest and fastest expansion.
During the dawn shift, Steve hikes up to the Suzuki Roshi Memorial site to see how it has fared and offer greetings and words of gratitude to our founder. The rock memorial is mostly untouched, except for the charred post of Katagiri Roshi’s memorial. The abbot proceeds to the swing set meadow beyond the suspension bridge, where he comes across the singed body of a fallen young buck, ashes anointing its velvet antlers.
After a breakfast of cold cereal, we gather in the dining room and perform a short service of the En Mei Jukku Kannon Gyo, dedicating the service with gratitude to all those who helped prepare Tassajara for fire and supported us with prayers, blessings, and numerous other forms of generosity.
Our patrols continue throughout the day. Several of us begin recording the fire’s impact on Tassajara and assessing more completely the extent of the damage within the monastery grounds and upon the wilderness around us. Word spreads quickly throughout the extended Zen Center sangha and beyond that we are all safe and unharmed (as well as exhausted), and that Tassajara has survived mostly intact. The Monterey Herald proclaims, “Priests Survive Inferno.” The status of the road is unclear to us, as is the current perimeter of the fire. We expect to be unable to leave the valley for days to come. Throughout the morning several reconnaissance helicopters fly low over the valley.
Around 2:00 pm, following a group lunch, Colin takes up his afternoon patrol and shortly thereafter radios that the woodshed across from the shop is on fire. David, Mako and Steve scramble to help, but the pumps aren’t on and there’s no water pressure. We wait futilely as the shed fire roars, catching the trees above it and the area across the road on fire. David grabs a fire extinguisher and works the fire across the road that is threatening the water lines and heading in the direction of the propane tanks. Graham starts the pumps again and within minutes we are hosing down the collapsing woodshed and trees nearby, including several juniper firs. Later we discover how the fire had quietly snaked more than five feet along several roots nestled among rocks bordering the parking lot, and then stealthily entered the wood stack to later ignite the entire pile.
After this surprising loss, we realize that we must maintain our vigilance for some time still. For many days following, piles of smoldering leaves and burning logs remain active despite, in many instances, being doused repeatedly with water. Just as the fire seemed to take forever to arrive, it seems equally insistent on taking its time to depart. (On July 21, a 4x8 beam still buried in the ruins of the birdhouse cabin once again ignites into flames, having smoldered underground for 11 days after the initial inferno.) While Tassajara and its community now seem to be on the far side of imminent danger, we must simply acknowledge that the fire’s lessons on impermanence, attentiveness and “don’t know mind” will be forefront in our minds for months, and perhaps years, to come.
See “The Events Surrounding the Third Evacuation and the Tassajara Five’s Return” for an account of the day before the fire arrived, and “Now that the fire has passed” for a more complete overview of the effects of the fire on the grounds of Tassajara and the landscape around it. Here is a brief account of the 17 evacuees who arrived at Jamesburg.
Photos courtesy of Mako Voelkel. All photos are linked to an on-line photo album that contains higher resolution images as well as images not displayed here.