Tassajara's "Fire Monks" Story Remains Untold

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.


  • Anonymous says:

    Mike, You are a Godsend to the people of Tassajara. Your posts have been thoughtful and are deeply appreciated. Keep up the good work.John

  • Kathryn says:

    Thanks Mike!! As are you…best k

  • Mike says:

    I just read through the Cachauga Store blog and apparently the Forest Service had a “Tassajara Structure Protection Plan” posted publicly days before the burnover.Why did they bail out?Firefighter are trained to fight fires safely, to help people, not to watch civilians fight fire in front of them. Everyone I worked with during my time with Cal Fire (CDF) would have lobbied to get up that road.This fire was a PR mess from minute one and change can be affected if the right questions are asked.What happened was wrong at the core.

  • Mike says:

    Kathyrn, as you wish. I truly appreciate your comments.:-)You are a great advocate. Mike

  • Chris says:

    Hi Mike,I’m one of the Zen Center people at Jamesburg during the fire and I’m saddened by the criticism of the fire services that I’ve read, both here and on other sites. I have nothing but gratitude for their help with preparing both of our sites and for their efforts to keep us informed of their intentions and the course of the fire.I was in no doubt that current policies would lead to there being no fire crews at Tassajara if the fire arrived there. We were repeatedly told that the road is too exposed and that they are no longer willing to send crews into a site where they would be cut off from escape or outside help for several days. We were told this by both Calfire and the Forest Service people at pretty much every level. You ended one post by saying that you had no doubt that the cavalry would arrive. I never had any doubt that they wouldn’t.Someone did mention a couple of incidents that brought about a change in policy and I’m sorry but I can’t remember if the Esperenza fire was one of these incidents.I was, and still am, confused by the attempt to pressure the Incident Command into doing something that contravenes current safety guidelines. These are after all, only buildings that could be rebuilt. Someone who dies after they are unable to get treatment for an accident or illness cannot be revived.Thanks for your efforts to interpret the fires. I’ve found your postings to be consistently informative and helpful.

  • Tim says:

    There is now a photo of the “firemonks” posted to the SFZC.org site.

  • mb in Port Angeles says:

    cuke.com has a photo of the five Tassajara monks. http://cuke.com/Wow. What a scoop. DC says that Steve’s wife sent it.

  • Anonymous says:

    “I can think of no more stirring symbol of man”s humanity to man than a fire engine.”- Kurt Vonnegut

  • Mike says:

    Thanks Preston, thanks to all for the informative comments.Mike

  • Preston says:

    Hi Captain Mike,Here’s an excerpt from a report that partially answers a question I had earlier about fire fighter support from outside California: “Nearly fifteen hundred fires have been contained due to the endless efforts of firefighters from California, as well as from throughout the nation and Canada. Additional firefighting resources from Australia, Greece, Mexico and New Zealand are in transit to assist California.’The report is at: http://www.fire.ca.gov/downloads/incidents/Statewide_FireOverview_071408_PM.pdf .

  • Preston says:

    Hi Jane,Jump on my post all you want. I am sitting a safe distance away, with very little experience in these matters, looking at only what I can discern from a few blog sites and news items.My wife’s friend on Mt Madonna lived through the Croy fire a few years ago. That fire took so long to get to her neighborhood, she had time to hire a moving company to carry her patient records, computers, valuables and other belongings away to storage. We were able to retrieve her cats and care for them for over a week, while others cared for the rest of her livestock.On the other hand, this year we saw the Summit fire which started very close to Mt Madonna, and there was precious little time to plan for anything, other than a fairly quick evacuation.I know that if the Basin fire or Indian fire had started closer to Tassajara, the outcome might have been tragic, as it has been for many throughout the state.Maybe I’ve been around Buddhists for too long, but I can’t help but look at the positive results of the battle for Tassajara on this occasion and think that a lot of negative karma was ripening in the best way it could for all involved.Maybe from a political/firefighter/experienced neighbor point of view, more could have been done. It’s always good to have that debate, especially when the pain of the moment has not yet disappeared into dim memories.What does the future hold? If it’s been 31 years between fires at Tassajara, maybe there is time to plan for better plumbing for fire fighting or the other suggestions you and others have made, not just for Tassajara, but for the affected communities as well.I wish nothing but the best for all who are living through these times, and hope you get whatever improvements might help you live more safely in the place that you clearly love so dearly.

  • One of the monks says:

    I was one of the fifteen people who left Tassajara the day before the fire hit, and I have been wondering how to address the points made in this post skillfully. I think Capt Mike’s analyis of tactics tallies with what we heard more than once in the two weeks leading up to the final evacuation, where we learnt about firefighting politics alongside learning about fire behavior. The fire monks don’t have to wonder too much about that side of things.The professional who advised us to leave cited the lack of hoped-for firecrew ground support as a critical factor in that decision, along with the high temperatures and strong winds blowing the fire along the creek valley towards the monastery. Having been, along with other the fire professionals who came, impressed with the state of preparedness of the monastery and confident that the monks would be able to fight the previously anticipated spotting fires and creeping encroachment, the professional’s prognosis changed with the weather. As this all developed over the course of an afternoon, it may be that there was not enough time to organise a ground support team to get over the fourteen steep miles of dirt road. Those who left that afternoon were grateful that air support was sent in which enabled them a safe passage, while only a few hours later the road was impassable. I was glad to read that an engine has been able to make it over the road, and I look forward to going back in as soon as it is feasible and safe.

  • Jane says:

    Captain Mike, thank you for continuing to ask the relevant questions, and to ponder what might have created the decisions that were made.Please forgive me for this long post…For those who think that because the five mostly succeeded, it was a right decision to leave them on their own there… well, first, if an engine crew had stayed in, so would fifteen other Tassajarans have stayed, reassured by that presence. The five were only there because they over-rode the decision by the full group to leave, which was influenced by the decision to pull out the engines and any other professional ground help the day before. I don’t think that’s a position a layperson should have been put in. I’m in awe of their decision, to return, under those circumstances. It certainly was not a given, and had they not gone back, the monastery would have burned. (The first person report from David Zimmerman is pretty clear on that point–the sprinklers and foil-wrap would not have been enough.)I fought the Ventana Cone fire in ’77, with 16 of us supported by a few professionals (no engine though– they hiked in from Arroyo Seco to help us, after the road was shut by fire). We fought with the benefit of backfires professionally set from our firebreaks when the fire entered the canyon. Trying to imagine five people doing this, under uncontrolled conditions… I can’t imagine anyone truly feeling that even if they saved the compound, this is ok to sanction as official policy–which is what Mike is exploring here. I don’t mean to jump on Preston’s post, just to say that having lived through this myself, what happened this time is unfathomable to me. I don’t think the five monks were at risk of losing their lives–there were safe zones to retreat to. I do share Captain Mike’s bafflement that they could be left in so vulnerable a position to defend on their own what is considered not simply a much-loved resort and retreat but a significant cultural and spiritual treasure and resource by tens or hundreds of thousands.Re the comment about preparations, I wonder if we might not add some of those permanent sprinklers now… but what we did do in between ’77 (and the loss, in ’78, of our meditation hall to a building fire because our main pump was out of the creek because of post-fire floods, and didn’t work when a fire broke out and it was needed) was a lot. If we’d had a full crew there this time, we had ten standpipes along the main creekside length of Tassajara, a system pressurisable to 120 lbs, a ton of hoses, the jury-rigged sprinkles all up and working so long as people were there to keep them going… We had tried to prepare, as best laypeople can. But this is only the second forest fire to actually reach Tassajara in 31 years, and 31 years between fires is a long time to keep in constant readiness, especially when you know that for a while, you’re protected by the fire that has just come through, and Tassajara’s resources are always stretched. Thanks for listening. And thanks for being here, thinking together, about fire, people, buildings, policy, and how the full community of professionals and layperson stakeholders can work to keep our interface of human and wild as safe as possible.

  • felicia says:

    Your site has been a lifeline to us in Tassajara/Cachagua and environs. I personally know Cal Fire was ready and willing to defend it but they timed out and the Forest Service wouldn’t let them return. The Forest Service has been behaving badly, much like the Gestapo. Many of us have elected to stay in our homes where we are held prisoner by the IC. It has been 3 days and it is unlikely to be lifted anytime soon as the fire has gotten a bit, well shall we say out of hand? They lost control of it by White Oaks, tomorrow they are firing a huge portion from Anastasia Canyon to Piney Creek road. Hope it doesn’t jump CVR like it did in ’77. I too am calling it Marble Cone Redux. I was a kid for that fire. Forest Service blamed the road saying if anything happened to a FF it would be three days to get him out. Ironically the sheriff has been up there since and we all know how much they enjoy physical exertion. Information is scant, most of what we know comes from blogs and citizens monitoring scanners. Please keep the information highway open, it may be the only one for quite a while. Love your site! You rock!

  • Lloyd says:

    Given the fires that have blasted through that camp over the decades, it’s a surprise that Tassajara has not yet developed an automatic fire attack system. Steel pipe, 500gpm pump, sprinklers on all roofs and in key trees…perhaps a worthy rainy season project…the FireMonks bringing change from within.

  • Preston says:

    Knowing nothing about firefighting protocols, I can only look at the results. Maybe a professional team could or should have helped, but the five monks proved to be quite capable and successful. Maybe their efforts, whether heroic or not, enabled the professionals to divert a tragedy somewhere else in the area. One does not always know how events chain together for better or worse. Look, for instance, at the story in the monks’ report about the squirrels enjoying the goodies exposed by the damage to the compost shed. That’s one outbuilding whose loss turned into a little bit of heaven.

  • Mike says:

    Thanks MB!Mike

  • mb in Port Angeles says:

    Perhaps you haven’t seen it, there’s an account of the fire from inside Tassajara by David Zimmerman at http://tinyurl.com/5556wtSitting with Fire is saying that “Yesterday a couple of firecrews made it down the road to Tassajara to help with mopping up.” It’s a big relief to know they are no longer alone in there, keeping constant watch and unable to really rest.