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.