SF Gate’s cartoonist Tom Meyer makes the point that it was the resident monks of the Tassajara Zen Center that fended off flames, not firefighters who watched from a safe distance. Meyers cartoon shows a little boy admiring the monk shouting out, “when I grow up I want to be a Fire Monk“.
Firefighters + Monks seem an unlikely combination but in reality they share similar characteristics. Both are inherently humble, both sacrifice for the greater good, give before taking, do for their brothers and sisters and neither get paid a bunch.
It should not be a surprise to find monks, when pitted against fire, disregard self and face the danger. Here they defined bravery and heroism and gave foothold to an urban legend.
For those new to this story, the Tassajara Zen Center was overrun by fire last week. From the beginning of the Indians Fire that started in late May and then the Basin Complex Fire that began in mid June that the compound would be in jeopardy.
July 10 at 1:30 pm the fire worked towards the compound down-slope from all sides. Though the Zen Center had been ordered evacuated, five monks stayed. The day before the five turned their car around at a check point and made their way back, dedicated to saving their home.
The monks, without help beat back the fire. Curiously fire engines were ordered to stay a safe distance away as the monks stomped out spot fires and squirted water on flames. A few outbuildings burned but the compound was saved.
Fire personnel had helped prep the buildings and grounds days and weeks before. Some buildings were wrapped and vegetation was trimmed back. When the time came they were not around. I posted my thoughts that day that surely fire authorities would divert ground resources to help the remaining residents. They did not.
I can assure you the firefighters being kept a safe distance away were chomping at the bit to get up the road to help. This is a dream situation for wildland firefighters, setting up for the attack, then fending off the beast. This was a ready made set up for an adrenaline rush.
The monks were denied. Who kept the firefighters out? Understand air attack aircraft watched the scene below unfold. All knew there were residents on the ground. Possibly in their view the residents could handle it?
In any case engines would have had to be positioned at the compound before the fire arrived. Satellite images show the road is narrow and fire engines would have had to use that road to get to them. The fire blew down that road. One road in with no escape.
I read one report that the engines closest to Tassajara had a different mission, they were ordered to keep the advancing flames from breaching established dozer lines. If true it was an important mission. The dozer lines were established to keep the fire from the populated areas of lower Carmel Valley.
Even so it’s a hard to rationalize why the only set of buildings for miles around on that side of the fire were ignored by ground crews.
One possible explanation is the Forest Service culture. Unlike Cal Fire the Forest Service approaches fire with a more defensive posture. This is the only rationale I can use to resolve this and other situations on the Basin Complex where residents were left to defend their own homes. In the Cal Fire culture initial attack fire crews arrive on scene and set up around structures (generally), once they guide the fire around one structure they move on to the next one and so on until there are no more (defensible) structures to save.
Forest Service engine crews will do the same as exemplified by the bravery of the Engine 57 crew lost on the Esperanza Fire in October 2006 . Did the tragic death of the crew of Engine 57 affect the way the Forest Service approaches fire today?
There are geographic differences between the Tassajara site and the site of the tragic Engine 57 burnover. The Tassajara Center is in a canyon, the Engine 57 crew was at a hilltop home site above a drainage with Santa Ana winds pushing. Tassajara expected a backing or downhill fire. Absent wind a fire burning downhill will move slower by a factor of 16 (+ or -) than a fire burning uphill.
No matter, a decision had been sent down, no engines were going to be committed.
Until fire officials open up about it, (and I have no reason to believe they will) the residents and “Fire Monks” of Tassajara will have to wonder why they were left on their own.
A lesson to take away from this is one taught in Ketchum Idaho last year. Several multi-million dollar homes were actually defended by private firefighting companies. It wasn’t the homeowners who hired the private firefighters, it was the insurance companies who insured those homes.
Perhaps the next time fire threatens Tassajara the Center administrators should secure the services of private industry. Same goes for the residents of Apple Pie Ridge and other remote homesteads.
*UPDATE: From the San Francisco Zen Center. An initial account of the fire from the five (still) inside.
(Thanks to reader MB in Port Angeles)
*UPDATE: Readers were kind enough to send a link to a photo of the five monks who single handedly saved the Tassajara Mountain Center from the Basin Fire.