Basin Complex Commander Deitrich Exits Quietly

Basin Complex Fire Commander Mike Deitrich slipped out of camp July 14 with no fanfare from what I see. Deitrich was not honored by Big Sur in the same manner commander Molumby of the the Zaca Fire was feted by grateful Santa Barbara residents last year.

Molumby and his staff were toasted by Comedian (and Montecito resident) Jonathan Winters at the toney rooftop restaurant of the Hotel Andalucia.
Deitrich didn’t even get a bowl of granola.

Deitrich managed the Basin Complex Fire wonderfully. Tactically it was brilliant, he did his job minimizing injury to firefighters and saving the buildings in Big Sur. While dozens of homes and outbuildings burned, scores more were saved by some very good fire management.

The public relations side of the equation is another story. The community allowed him to slip out the back door without a celebration because while he was good at firefighting he failed at public relations.

He failed to appreciate the character of the community. He only needed to work with them. They stayed, as it was their right. They wanted to help. He could not officially allow that but he didn’t offer to help them when they needed it.

Two examples where he blew it was Apple Pie Ridge, where one family member was arrested at gunpoint, and at Tassajara where five resident monks were left alone to save their compound.

The monks worked 6 hours beating back spot fires and spraying down flames that hit them from all sides July 10.

The family and friends on Apple Pie Ridge also fought alone to save their homes and outbuildings. One brother, an ex seasonal firefighter used a backfiring technique to save the property. He was arrested. I’m not making a judgment on that but the situation could easily have been avoided.

For instance the Tassajara Zen Center the Apple Pie residents were known to fire command. In the case of the Zen Center they actually had a structure protection plan drawn up. Deitrich knew better than the residents those properties were doomed if unattended. He knew residents intended to stay yet he committed no firefighters on the ground.

Antipathy is born from such action, or inaction.
All he had to do to have a statue, (or redwood totem) erected in his name was to personally go up to the brothers on the hill with a couple of engines and a water tender in tow. For the monks one experienced blue card crew of 17.

Instead he punted the monks to fate and one of the brothers to faces charges.

15 Comments

  • Mike says:

    Thanks Tim, what a story. I am formulating an opinon for a post later.

  • Tim says:

    Mike,I know that you are interested in having the story of the Battle for Tassajara told. David Zimmerman has just posted the events of July 9th, the day of the evacuation and the day the five decided to return. This will be followed by an account of the day the fire arrives soon. I can post that here, too, when it’s ready.Tim

  • Warren says:

    Yeah i agree…great summary! Thanx for taking the time to write it!

  • Pam says:

    Command of the Basin complex was split into two sections with Dietrich in the West and McGowan/Hutchinson in the East. The Tassajara monastery is just above Carmel Valley, on the eastern side of the fire, so presumably the decision to withdraw firefighters was McGowan and Hutchinson’s call.

  • Mike says:

    Thank you Keith.

  • Keith says:

    This is the best summary of the Basin Fire situation I’ve read – by far. Thanks for taking the time to write it and to share your experience and perspective with us.

  • Hannah Zimmerman says:

    Cool post Captain Mike!!You may be interested in an article that the Pitch just published about a Kansas City, Ks Fire dept. defending one of its own after a really horrible car crash involving a fire truck and a driver. Here is a link if you, or anyone else would care to take a look….www.pitch.com.

  • Mike says:

    Hi Chris, I don’t know too much about Mike Deitrich other than his name as IC on a number of fires over the past couple of years.If he was in charge of that Forest in 2006 he would be especially (understandably) cautious about committing crews in tight spots.Looking at the photos from Tassajara there seems to be adequate safety zones within.The picture of the burned deer does underscore the danger.

  • Mike says:

    Hi Jane, thank you for the link to the photos from inside the Center. These photos are amazing and show how the appraoching fire looked from the Fire Monks vantage point.It’s a special story!

  • Chris says:

    Dietrich is currently Fire Chief for San Bernardino National Forest. Was he in this position during the 2006 Esperanza Fire, when 5 Forest Service firefighters died in a burnover while trying to defend structures? This might explain his reluctance to place his crews in positions where they could easily be trapped. In fact, the fire burned across Tassajara Road, cutting off access to the monks and their monastery for a week.

  • Jane says:

    Hi Captain Mike,A sobering set of photos taken by one of the Tassajara Five is now available for viewing online:http://www.flickr.com/photos/28599733@N07/sets/72157606167565548/I don’t know if you want to make this available to your readers, but thought I’d let you know.One thing in it did make me laugh–in the first two days of preparation, right after the initial guest evacuation, along with telling people where our old firebreaks were cut and pointing out where leaves needed to be raked from buildings, etc., I kept saying, “I cannot believe how many brooms are leaning up against the sides of our cabins, if you see one, please put it inside.” And here, in these photos, is one of a broom that was left hanging on the side of a building, its bristles burned away, the building showing char marks where it did. And all I could think was, “How’d I miss that one? I thought I’d looked for them all.”all best,Jane

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for the link and mention Kate. I added your blog here. Good work re; LA Times and the great photos and all!

  • South Coast Kate says:

    You are quite welcome. I suspect there are several books in this one. The book idea I have would be community based, with individual stories, photos, etc., chosen by professionals (outside area)all donated, and book sale profits to go to our wonderful BSVFB. That’s my dream, anyway.I’ve linked your blog on mine bigsurkate.wordpress.com and mentioned this particular blog as a must read.I started my blog after MCSO issued the 409.5 warning in frustration, AFTER I contacted the LA Times and spoke w/ the reporter who would eventually write the Curtis article.All the beast.

  • Mike says:

    Thank you Kate. This has been one for the books. I have learned alot about your wonderful community. I lived in Santa Cruz County on top of Empire Grade. Our community was not tight like yours. You stuck together and kept informed with a great group of blogs and forums.I’ve watched incident blogging evolve since 2002-2003 and the Big Sur community (east and west) placed its stamp on the evolutionary process.I know someone will write a book, I wish I was a writer! Amazing story all around.

  • South Coast Kate says:

    Excellent summary, Mike. Deitrich did an excellent job commanding the huge operation, which must have been a nightmare, given the conditions, but as you say, his relations, through the MCSO sucked, to say the least.BTW, I have been reading your blog several times a day for weeks now, and I cannot tell you how much I’ve appreciated the knowledge and firefighters perspective you have provided all of us living with the Monster Basic Complex Fire. Certainly a historic event.Thank you, Capt (Ret) Mike

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Mike Morales

Retired Cal Fire/CDF Fire Captain
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