An Account of the Tassajara 2008 Basin Complex Fire
By David Zimmerman, Tassajara Director,
Wednesday, July 9: Day 17 since the first evacuation of June 23
The Indiana fire crew, under the direction of Branch Director Jack Froggatt, continues wrapping select buildings with protective heat-resistant material after breakfast. In the late morning Matthai Kuruvila, a reporter on religion for the SF Chronicle and Lance Iversen, a photographer, come in to interview residents on how we are practicing with this particular adversity and photograph the community during our fire preparations.
After lunch we invite the Indiana fire crew to join us for a work circle gathering in the courtyard, where we all say our names and the sangha expresses its gratitude and concern for the crew’s well-being. We then take a photo on the moon lawn with the Indiana crew and the partially-wrapped gatehouse in the background.
At approximately 1:30 pm, as we start our afternoon work assignments, Jack informs us that the fire has picked up considerably in the Church Creek and Tassajara creek confluence area, and that he has been instructed to pull out the wrap crew immediately due to the road possibly being compromised within hours. As quickly as they came the crew departs, with the wrapping work not quite finished. The Chronicle reporter and photographer call their office and are told they too need to leave, despite their wish to stay. Ironically, while all this is happening, an IP satellite technician is here working with Graham Ross and Aliyu Turaki to switch our system to a new satellite. Because of this our phones are down except for the radio line which is only passably usable. The satellite switchover is taking longer than anticipated, but Jack feels he needs to wait to make sure the technician gets out safe, so he stays behind a while intending to escort out the technician. As the repair drags on, Jack decides to wait instead at Lime Point so he can keep an eye on the fire. (Later, after the technician finally leaves, escorted by Graham, we discover that only one of the two satellite phone lines is working properly. The next day the fire damages the radio phone connection, leaving us with only one operational phone line.)
Leslie James calls in from Jamesburg on the radio phone to say that John Bradford, the District Ranger in King City, called her while Peggy Hernandez, Head of U.S. Forest Service and Deputy Supervisor Ken Heffner were in the room with him to let us know that they are pulling their people out and to once again ask us to leave because they cannot provide any ground crew support. Leslie thanks them for their concern but tells them we’re committed to staying, and that we have the help of off-duty professional firefighters.
The sangha of 20 continues fire preparations as usual. During this time Stuart Carlson, (an off-duty fire captain for CalFire, who has been with us for the last two weeks during his personal vacation time offering his guidance on fire preparedness and engagement), Kim Leigh (a former firefighter) and Colin Gipson hike over the hogback, where they have a better view up Tassajara Creek. They see fire coming down the creek valley, and Stuart estimates the flame lengths to be as high as 60 feet. At this point Stuart confers with Kim and then sounds the fire alarm. He instructs the sangha to begin spraying down the flats area and to activate the sprinklers. David Zimmerman calls George Haines, the CalFire Unit Chief several of us had met with the Saturday before, to let him know fire has been spotted upstream and to inquire whether George has had any success in encouraging ground support for Tassajara. George says he hasn’t been able to arrange anything. David conveys this message via walkie-talkie to Stuart, who in response asks that the message be conveyed to George that “if he says ‘go’, we’ll go.” George doesn’t see a need to do so yet, but asks that we keep him informed of the situation, and he will likewise stay in contact with us.
Concerned about the viability of the road, Stuart, Colin and David then make an excursion up to Lime Point to assess the fire’s progress. On the way up, Stuart is listening to his fire captain’s radio and hears on the forest service frequency a “red flag” warning and prediction for 25-30 mile winds, which means that fire will travel faster through ridge “chimneys” and low saddles. He also hears that there is significant spotting occurring, which happens when a “thrown” ember starts another fire ahead of the current fire line. Once at Lime Point it becomes obvious that the fire is coming in strong through the Church Creek valley. Stuart sees fire behavior that makes him very uncomfortable. It becomes apparent to him that a number of conditions are coming into alignment to make for a very dangerous fire.
The three decide to return to Tassajara. On the way back down we hear Jack say over Stuart’s radio that the fire has jumped and is going to soon compromise the ridge. Paging Jack directly over his radio, Stuart inquires as to how long we would have to evacuate before the ridge is compromised. Jack, apparently misunderstanding, seems to hear Stuart say we are deciding to evacuate. Jack tells Stuart to let him know what we were going to do when we get back to the monastery so that Jack can arrange to cover our departure with air support. David clarifies with Stuart that the staff decision-making team needs to discuss the situation first and that it’s premature to say we’re evacuating. But Stuart’s call has set the ball rolling, and air command starts arranging for tanker planes to water bomb the road to keep it open for our egress.
The three get back to Tassajara and the staff team immediately meets with Stuart in the Stone Office to discuss the latest development. Stuart again says “we have to leave and leave right now!” because our only way out by the road is about to be cut off and the weather tomorrow is predicted to be 110 degrees, with strong down canyon winds expected. Under these conditions the fire is not going to come in slow as he originally anticipated, Stuart says, but rather rush in. He has become extremely concerned for our safety because he now believes that, given these new conditions, the fire will come in too intensely for our inexperienced community, even with the fire fighting preparations we have done. Co-Abbot Steve Stücky asks Stuart about his sudden change of mind regarding our safety and the defensibility of Tassajara. Stuart clarifies that it’s clear now to him that neither George Haines nor Jack Froggatt are able to arrange for any onsite help from CalFire or the Forest Service. We simply don’t have the capacity to fight a fire in these conditions by ourselves, he reiterates. We need to leave immediately because the forest service is keeping the road open with tanker planes for our safe passage. Two staff members point out that the core team (prior to Steve’s arrival) had agreed to follow Stuart’s direction (given his professional experience) when and if it came to the moment of deciding on another evacuation, especially if there wasn’t any other fire crew stationed here. Other members bring up the possibility of a smaller core group staying behind to keep the pumps and sprinklers running, but Stuart seems intent on everyone evacuating.
Reluctantly the staff decision is made for everyone to evacuate. There is no time for a larger group process. The evacuation announcement and within minutes everyone is grabbing their prepacked personal belongings and heading to the awaiting vehicles. The Gandaran Buddha is removed from the main altar in the zendo, wrapped in blankets and buried in the bocce ball court in a hole dug days earlier. Dharma Rain, the jury-rigged sprinkler system on many of the buildings, is turned on as are the Wisconsin and Mark III pumps, which should operate for 3 hours before running out of gas. If the fire comes afterwards, no one will be here to refuel and keep the pumps running.
David calls Jamesburg to let them know we’re heading out. While on the phone he gets repeated urgent requests over his walkie-talkie to come to the parking lot immediately as everyone is waiting on him to leave. Just as David is about to exit the office co-Abbot Paul Haller calls in. He’s heard about the evacuation and asks for clarity around the reasons and whether anyone is staying. It’s all unclear, David tells him, but nevertheless Steve has said that we are to heed Stuart’s advice for now and therefore everyone needs to leave. David promises that he and Steve will call Paul to discuss next steps when everyone has arrived at Jamesburg.
Within 30 minutes after the initial evacuation announcement we’re heading up the road. Steph Wenderski does a final head count of everyone in the vehicles over the walkie-talkies. Steve and David, in Steve’s CRV, are the last to leave, intent on being the final vehicle in the convoy. Colin is in the lumber truck just ahead of them. The abbot and the director discuss the situation in the car. It feels wrong to them, wrong to go after all this preparation. Wrong to leave Tassajara abandoned and unattended. They’re also unclear about Stuart’s sudden change of mind about the defensibility and safety of Tassajara during a forest fire, even while they appreciate his obvious concern for our safety. Both Steve and David consider turning around but are unsure how to communicate to the others such a drastic step. (Mako and Graham have a similar discussion between them in their vehicle.) Stuart stops on the road just below the second overlook and waves Steve and David on, but they decline to pass him and again insist on being the last car.
At the bulldozer slope, at a sharp bend just above the ruins of the bathtub, the convoy stops to meet Jack Froggatt who is waiting for us. Though he relayed the evacuation request, Jack expresses surprise at our sudden departure. He then tells us that this is the last chance to stay, that once we leave we won’t be able to return without a forest service escort. Hearing this, six members of the staff team convene on the road while the rest of the convoy waits. (David radios Shundo Haye, the seventh member of the staff team, but he is too far ahead in the first vehicle of the convoy to be included in the discussion.) After a brief reflection on Jack’s announcement, five of the staff team—Abbot Steve Stücky, Director David Zimmerman, Tenzo Mako Voelkel, Plant Manager Graham Ross, and Head of Shop Colin Gipson—decide (completely of their own accord) to return to Tassajara and stay there through the fire to at least keep the sprinklers and pumps running until the danger has passed. David and Steve consult briefly on whether to inquire among the rest of the evacuees about who might want to return, but decide there is simply no time to convene with all 20 evacuees for a group process and decision-making consensus. Jack is urgently requesting that the rest of the convoy continue on immediately as the tanker planes are holding off the fire for our safe passage. (According to Jack, the planes had been deliberately diverted from the south end of the fire to cover our egress. This, as we later discover, is apparently the only direct air support Tassajara will receive throughout the fire.)
Stuart, understandably, is very unhappy with the five’s decision to return to Tassajara. Nevertheless, he advises Colin to coil up a number of hoses for ready defense in front of the Stone Office, to engage or bear out the fire from this designated safe space as long as possible, and—if we couldn’t take it any longer—to jump in the creek until the fire passed. (A week after the fire, Stuart explains to David that he had mixed feelings about the Tassajara five staying behind. He wanted to be with us, but couldn’t. He recognized that we each made the decision to stay by our own measure, and was also proud of us for doing so. While he knew we had safe areas at Tassajara, he wasn’t willing to subject people to the bad fire conditions that he foresaw. These weren’t the same conditions he had witnessed at Tassajara in the preceding weeks, when he thought that the fire would quietly walk-in and therefore be easily engaged. Stuart said he willingly would have taken on these new circumstances had he had the support of a professional engine crew positioned at Tassajara. He confessed that, up until the afternoon, when he learned that George Haines had been unsuccessful in securing onsite personnel for the community, Stuart had still been hoping that the U.S. Forest Service would send assistance to Tassajara.)
After hugs and well-wishes for the five staying behind, the convoy continues on its way to Jamesburg. The five remaining monks split up between Steve’s CRV and the lumber truck, turn the vehicles around, and head back down the road.
Once back at the monastery, the Tassajara five meet to discuss priorities for the evening: 1) refuel and maintain the pumps and Dharma Rain, 2) set up night patrols, 3) continue preparing the Stone Office as a safety bunker, and 4) eat dinner. We also discuss the obvious conflict of interest that Stuart must have struggled with in his decision to have us evacuate. It made sense to us that Stuart wanted everyone to leave because he didn’t want to see anyone hurt because of his counsel if we decided to stay and engage the fire. We felt it was appropriate at the time to act on his advice to evacuate, despite our misgivings about what it meant for Tassajara, and that by having initially followed his counsel, we were now able to exonerate him of any responsibility for our turning around once encountering Jack Froggatt on the road. We jointly express our gratitude for all the support and guidance that Stuart had shown us over the last two weeks, and hope his efforts would not be in vain.
The next installment: The Day the Fire Arrived.
Photos courtesy of Shundo David Haye and Mako Voelkel. All photos are linked to on-line photo albums that contain higher resolution images as well as images not displayed here.