Tassajara: Victims of USFS Bureaucratic Incompetence

Details of the heroic fight to save the Tassajara Zen Center are filtering out. Center Director David Zimmerman, one of the five “fire monks” describes the events that led to the final evacuation of the Center here.

From Zimmerman’s story we learn Tassajara Center residents prepared for more than two weeks for the arrival of the Basin Fire. During much of that time they enjoyed the expertise of an off duty CalFire captain. Captain Stuart Carlson guiding them on ground preparation and safety issues.

On July 9 as the fire approached Captain Carlson summarized appropriately the changing weather and fire conditions above the mountain retreat. Once he was told by his contacts that no crews would be available for structure protection he advised the residents to evacuate. All but five did.

Basin Complex Fire command knew for weeks the situation at the Tassajara Center. On July 10, the same morning the Basin Fire descended on the compound the following line was included in the morning report;

Values at Risk: include communities, critical infrastructure, natural and cultural resources:
Next 12 hours:West Zone: Residences south of Julia Pfeiffer Burns State Park along Hwy 1 and Palo Colorado Canyon residences. Carmel River watershed supplying CARMEL VALLEY, forest, riparian/steelhead habitat and cultural resources.
East Zone: Tassajara Road structures, cultural resources, watershed.”

What happened between the night of July 9 and midday July 10 when the fire struck the Center?
What circumstances led the Forest Service to disregard their own assessment of risks faced by the “Tassajara Road Structures, cultural resources” from the time they drew up structure protection plans to when the fire arrived?

They clearly knew the Center was still occupied as evidenced in the July 10 morning report when they write, “Majority of the residents in the Tassajara community have evacuated“.

Zimmerman writes regarding a conversation that took place between one of his people and Forest Service representatives on July 9;

“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.”

Clearly someone in the the Forest Service decided to pull the plug on Tassajara.

Even though Basin Fire command placed Tassajara on their “things to do list” on the morning of the 10th this was never read or processed by the (non firefighting) people 20 miles away in King City. Perhaps putting Tassajara on the “to do list” was only lip service, covering bases. They took a pass even though they knew there were still residents on the site and even though the Forest Service already had structure protection plans in hand.

Tassajara’s own expert Captain Carlson assumed (according to Zimmerman) all along the Forest Service would send a crew in. I thought so as well when on the morning of July 10 I wrote how surely the “cavalry” would come riding in at the last moment.
I was thinking like Carlson. We both come from the same culture of firefighting.

I was under the impression the fire monks had received air support during the fire assault. That report was false. As hard as it is to believe of the 16 helicopters assigned to the Basin Complex fire not one was sent. Six fixed wing aircraft were at the disposal of Deitrich’s command staff but not one was ordered to drop a line over the Zen Center?

Keep in mind the Tassajara Zen Center is the only set of buildings for miles around on that side of the fire.

I was willing to suspend judgment of the Forest Service for not sending ground crews in to aid the monks as long as I believed they supported them by air. I am perplexed by the complete abandonment.
Firefighters like to fight fire. Saving people and battling flames is what they sign on to do. No firefighter on the Basin Fire would have turned down the opportunity to help the monks. Firefighters did not turn their backs on these folks, the suits comfortably situated in offices far away did.

Fire officials cannot claim the road was too dangerous to bring firefighters in because there was a Forest Service crew on the Center grounds 24 hours before the fire blew through.

The bureaucrats are lucky the “Tassajara Five” came out OK. A rolling rock or burning tree branch could have easily taken any one of them out. Being bureaucrats they probably had an “accident investigation plan” already prepared.

*Read all four Firefighter Blog posts labeled Tassajara.

Here’s an article describing how a member of the Big Sur Volunteer Fire Brigade broke ranks to help neighbors save a family home on Parrington Ridge.


  • Lisa says:

    From Zimmerman’s story we learn Tassajara Center residents prepared for more than two weeks for the arrival of the Basin Fire. During much of that time they enjoyed the expertise of an off duty CalFire captain. Captain Stuart Carlson guiding them on ground preparation and safety issues.

  • felicia says:

    Yes they did find approximately 32,000 pot plants on the west side of the Los Padres Dam somewhere behind the Santa Lucia Preserve. No poeple were found and I’ve heard that the aouthorities knew the plantation was there as early as February but I don’t have confirmation on that. To my knowledge nothing like that has been found out here and it usually makes the news!

  • Mike says:

    Felicia, thanks for that-If anyone ever writes a book on this fire they should consult you.I would guess the Marshals are looking for pot growers coming back to their plantations. I read on Cachagua Store blog they uncovered 30,000 plants somewhere near the fire.Don’t know if that is true. One thing I do know, boobytraps are a problem for firefighters. CDF academy classes cover various types found.I’ll say it again too. The F.S. punted on the monks, punted on Parrington and Aplle Pie. As you say Felicia CalFire would have stayed and fought along side the monks. I believe that.This and any further discussion should serve as warning to those who live in the urban wildlife interface to get their own fire engine.

  • felicia says:

    I’ve said it before and I’m saying it again. I heard personally that CalFire wanted to defend the Zen Center but they timed out and USFS wouldn’t let another crew go in. I have confirmation that on 13th Tassajara Road was open and driveable, not a week after the fire. Firing operations DID NOT go well at the White Oaks area, conducted a day or two after the fire went through the Center. USFS wanted to CYA, look at posts on Ventana Wilderness Alliance for eyewitness accounts and pictures of backfires gone bad. There was a reporter at the observatory on the 10th. Couldn’t have been that dangerous if they were showing a reporter around. There have even been camoflauged men with auto weapons running around, tonight we were told they are US Marshalls. Why? Party line is to keep firefighters safe. Things that make youy go hmmmm….

  • Mike says:

    Thank you for bringing up the Kirk Complex from 1999.Here is a very nice summary of the Kirk Complex.Mike

  • Anonymous says:

    Reminds me a lot of the Kirk Complex in ’99… USFS dragged their feet that year also…

  • Mike says:

    Mike D,They didn’t start it but they didn’t fight it directly either as you suggest.The Forest Service and the Rural Urban Interface doesn’t mix. I have concluded after many years of watching closely fires like this that if the Forest Service is in control of your area when a fire breaks out hire a private firefighting outfit.There are very good firefighters working for the Forest Service but they are not allowed to fight fires. Their firefighter retention rate backs that up.Firefighters want to fight fire.

  • Mike D. says:

    The incineration of the Ventana was deliberate. It was planned ahead of time and the plan was carried out, in accordance with WFLC and USFS policy. Just like the Zaca Fire. At no time did firefighters engage in direct attact. Instead they backburned over 100,000 acres. This was not brave boys attempting to put out a fire, but bureaucrats doing deliberate burning. That any homes survived in the predetermined Burn Zone is somewhat of a miracle.No raging fire front with 200 foot wall of flames. No plume-driven fire storm. No howling winds. It was not like that. Modern firefighting personnel and equipment CAN halt fires, even the most agrressive ones, but the Basin Fire was all not that agressive.No, this was a deliberate incineration of 215,000 acres. Now the residents will have to live with erosion, flash floods, fouled streams, and a wasteland charred earth landscape for many years. Observers need to look beyond the immediacy of the fire engagement and see the big picture, the whys and wherefores, and the aftermath that will linger.

  • Mike says:

    Hi Tim, in response to your statement,”at least one aircraft above Tassajara with water but didn’t know where to drop”It may be that the pilot had no one on the Tassajara grounds to communicate with. Air supports ground.I’m sure the guys in the air were frustrated with what they saw unfolding below that day.Mike

  • Mike says:

    Anonymous, I have taken an extended look of the situation and my conclusions are based on what I see, read and interpret from weather, fire behavior and accounts from the ground.The view you have chosen to support is some situations are too dangerous to defend. I could not agree more.In this case however we know an experienced fire captain was on the ground before the fire swept through and he was surprised help was denied. That pretty much sums it up for me.Beyond that I could see from satellite photos there were plenty of escape zones. Fire history told us the compound had been threatened AND defended similarly in the past.The Forest Service punted, simply. They punted Apple Pie Ridge and Parrinton Ridge as well. In all three cases the dwellings survived when the FS wrote them off.We’ll never know how many of the homes that did burn could have been saved had aggressive (or any) tactics been tried.Finally, would I want my kid in there? Yes if he were trained and had a level headed, experienced crew captain.Myself, I would have loved to be on the grounds that day.One more thing. Why pretend you are fighting fire at all if all you do is evacuate people and fire out from dozer lines or roads? Thanks for the comment,Mike

  • Martha says:

    Hello – I am new to blog posting. The link below is to Mako Voelkel’s photos. She took these pictures during the encounter with the fire at Tassajara.http://www.flickr.com/photos/28599733@N07/sets/72157606167565548/show/If you use the slide show option you will note, about 2/3rds the way through, a photo of a helicopter. Some entity with helicopter expertise attempted contact the day the fire came through the Center. Beyond that I do not have the expertise to speculate.We will all know more once Mr. Zimmerman posts his write up of activities of 10 July. Now time for a breath!best wishes,Martha

  • Anonymous says:

    I have no info regarding the decision loop, and am not a firefighter, but think a lot of people are taking a limited view of this issue, blog author included.From what I understand about the situation, I think the decision not to provide ground crews was correct. One of the primary tactical concepts of firefighting is to fight fires in a way that does not endanger the firefighters, regardless of the values to be protected.This just makes sense. Would you yourself order a group of fathers, sons, daughters, etc. down a road with no outlet, about to be rendered impassable by falling trees and rocks, into a valley where you knew they were going to be surrounded? I wouldn’t do it. In fact, most who worked to preserve Tassajara during the preceding days elected not to stay, and I think they can hold their heads high for making that decision. Imagine if firefighters had died defending Tassajara what sort of cries of incompetence in leadership there would be. Frankly, I think the monks were lucky. They worked very hard and were well prepared, but with winds 20 mph stronger the outcome might have been awful. No structures are worth preserving if lives are lost. Sentimentality can interfere with good judgement.I am sure all of the decision making in fighting this fire will be carefully reviewed, but I will be amazed if there is judgement that ground crews should have been left in Tassajara. Peace to all, including those who have earned the responsibility for making such decisions.

  • Jane says:

    Not for publication necessarily, but thanks very much Mike, for this latest set of thoughts. I myself don’t think it could possibly have been religious bias. A massive screw up seems a lot more likely to me. A cold decision seems possible, if chilling. But not bias… for one thing, we’ve always had great relationships with the firefighters who come and actually see us. We remain so grateful for their help, in ’77, and this time, the help we did get in advance, which did make a huge difference. The only question is about July 9-10, as you say, what happened between the commitment and its disappearance. Like you, I was positive they would be there for us when the fire arrived, as they were in ’77–we were left alone quite a lot, but when the fire was imminent, the cavalry showed up, so I was so sure they would again, no matter what they said or for that matter didn’t say. I’m going to hope for massive screw up to turn out to have been the answer, as Tim’s comment implies. Incompetence is understandable, narrow heartedness under such circumstance, too awful to consider.But thank you for continuing to ask and to question everything. Many of us hope you’ll find an answer we might not otherwise hear.gratitude,Jane

  • Tim says:

    Mike,There’s still something of this story that’s untold: I was close to the loop of communication with Tassajara on July 10th, and I recall it being said that there was at least one aircraft above Tassajara with water but didn’t know where to drop. I don’t know what the outcome of that situation was, but it would be good to find out since it would suggest that some order was given.FWIW,Tim

  • Mike D. says:

    There is also a private residence on inholder property in Pine Valley. Hot Shots “dropped off a nozzle” and left. No crews, no air support, no nothing, except a nozzle.

  • Mike says:

    Gordon, thanks for the comment. I intentionally followed that road with hopes someone who does know will chime in.Institutional, even cultural differences do exist between the Forest Service and CalFire/CDF.I could not point to a Forest Service Academy because only a small percentage of USFS firefighters ever see the inside of one.As for speculating, I waited until enough “news” became available to put together a plausible scenario.No matter how anyone slices this the Forest Service dropped the ball and left the residents and the Center exposed. That cannot be defended. Proof, the CalFire Captain on the grounds for a week stated to the monks he could defend the compound with a crew.That’s good enough for me.One cultural or Institutional difference that might be questioned here is the Forest Service vs. the Buddhists. They Forest Service saved the Boy Scout Camp, for which I am glad and we all know they would have put resources to work if the Center was a Christian shrine of similar cultural significance.So I question the actions, even motives of the Forest Service. Ignoring these people showed incompetence or bias, take your pick. As for the difference between the east and west side management of the fire you may know the incident commander signs off on the ICS-209.Thank you for your readership, I hope you continue visiting.Mike

  • Gordon says:

    I’ve enjoyed your blog, thanks. You’ve got great perspective and good play-by-play calling.With this last post however, you seem to have dropped onto the low road. Field/IC and CDF/USFS sniping is less interesting than when you have good info and resist speculating about bureaucrats. I’d be way more interested in some first-hand info from the IC and knowing how you perceive the institutional differences between USFS and CDF, rather than a link to a PR webpage for the CALFIRE academy. Don’t get me wrong, I don’t like dumb bureaucrats any more than the next guy, or bureaucratic bungling either. But my interest in your blog dropped several notches on this post.Also, at Cachagua community meetings the big, swaggering Indian fire IC introduced himself as the basin fire eastside IC. It didn’t sound to me like Deitrich had much to do with this part of the fire. What do you know about that and how well the unified command worked? What was CALFIRE’s role in the unified command?

  • bigsurkate says:

    Mike, great analysis, based on Zimmerman’s report and available data. I would certainly like to hear Bradford’s reasoning, as well as that of his boss. I can imagine that Bradford was the messenger, and that the decision came from above. But, maybe not.

  • Anonymous says:

    Amen, Brother

  • Preston says:

    Who needs institutional incompetence when you clearly have the personal competence you need, as borne out by the results?Maybe at this point some refund of property taxes or other reparation to the Zen Center would be an appropriate response on behalf of the fire officials who failed in this aspect of their mission.

  • catwrangler says:

    I agree. Tassajara got national news coverage so there is no way that anyone wasn’t aware that they were going to be in the line of fire and need support in the air or via ground crews.

  • Anonymous says:

    Wonderful commentary re the Tassajara fiasco (on the part of the USFS)! I don’t know how more clearly it could be stated! By the grace of God and Buddha, as well as the weeks of hard work and preparation by the monks, the Tassajara Zen Center was saved. It is appalling that they received neither air nor ground support. We – residents, observers, taxpayers – need to hold the USFS officials accountable for their actions, or in this case, lack of action! This is unacceptable behavior and there should be an investigation, IMO.Ann