Tale of Two Learning Centers, U.C. Berkeley & San Francisco Zen Center

Both maintain learning retreats in the same forest, both share a similar mission of teaching. Both respect the land they occupy. Both strive to do right by nature and society.

The University of California’s Hastings Reserve is one of 36 reserves in the Nature Reserve Systems maintained by the University of California. The NRS mission statement;

The mission of the Natural Reserve System is to contribute to the understanding and wise management of the Earth and its natural systems by supporting university-level teaching, research, and public service at protected natural areas throughout California.”

The San Francisco Zen Center maintains a mountain retreat situated in the Ventana Wilderness called the Tassjara Zen Center. The Zen Center mission includes;

The purpose of Zen Center is to make accessible and embody the wisdom and compassion of the Buddha as expressed in the Soto Zen tradition established by Dogen Zenji in 13th-century Japan and conveyed to us by Suzuki Roshi and other Buddhist teachers….

I followed the Tassajara story as they prepared for and then met the Basin Fire with no help. We will continue to marvel at the story of the “Tassajara Five” and the brave defense of their Center.

Here are the firefighting monks that saved the Zen Center as the Basin Fire swept in from four fronts on July 10.


Image Mako Voelkel Flickr

Here are the firefighters and equipment situated as a structure protection force at the Hastings Reserve while firing operations are conducted a couple of miles away.


Images: UC Berkeley Hastings Reserve blog

Two learning centers, two responses. The University of California research center deserves this protective force. The Buddhist center deserved help as well but was denied.

The obvious question is why?

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7 Comments

  • ellen says:

    Hastings is way easier to get in and out of than Tassajara. At least two roads come into the property from Carmel Valley Rd and the buildings are fairly close to Carmel Valley road as well. Carmel Valley Rd is a nice paved road. On the other hand, Tassajara is located at the end of a 12 mile bumpy, twisty, steep, rutted, one lane, dirt road. It seems pretty logical to me why the fire fighters left Tassajara but stayed at Hastings.

  • Mike says:

    Thank you for the comment Jane. Through this entire event the people associated with the Tassajara Mountain Center have never questioned why they were denied help.No recriminations no whining, no complaining at all. Maybe this comes from Buddhist training.I believe an explanation is in order. I think it’s a fair question. Persons who live in the Urban/Rural Interface should know to what extent they need a back up plan when fire threatens.Seeing the structure protection group assembled at Hastings leads me to believe there are not hard and fast guidelines. Who can expect help and who gets ignored.

  • Jane says:

    I had no idea there was a UC Reserve in that part of the Ventana… I’m glad it was protected, and I wonder if the person who speculated about more than one way in and out must not be right… Zen Center Abbot Steve Stuckey, one of the five, gave a talk at Green Gulch (another Zen Center practice place) about his experience of the fire, and of the decisions around it. What I heard him saying, listening to it, was that the Forest Service’s decision was indeed based on not having a crew trapped in there when the road would be (inevitably) closed by fire. This doesn’t mean that it was feared they would be in danger of dying in a burn-over type firestorm– there was a safe designated retreat spot, inside a building with thick stone walls, and there is a great deal of not-heavily-fueled terrain around Tassajara, one side of the canyon is well treed, but the other is mostly steep rocky hillside with grass and a few yucca plants and bushes on it, so no danger of oxygen being all burned up– but that in case of injury there would be no immediate egress. When the day before, July 9, the fire heated up, the crew wrapping buildings was very hastily pulled, before they finished the job, so that they would not be caught in there. I speculate (and that’s all this is, my guess) that there were two things operating here, one, concern for safety in case of injury (firefighting is a dangerous business under any circumstances) and two, concern that spread-thin personnel resources not be tied up for days because the road would not be safe to travel for a while. That’s only my speculation, I obviously have no insider information. But I do–from having seen and fought the ’77 Ventana Cone fire there– want to say that it was not a foolhardy or stupidly risky decision for people to be there and try to save it. It was a brave one, much braver than what we did in ’77, where we had more people and some knowledgeable support presence, but one not made without full knowledge of the greater importance of life than any building. That the forest service fire service decided not to defend it doesn’t mean (obviously) that it wasn’t safely defensible.I completely value the words of the firefighter’ mother. The parents of some of the Tassajara Five were reading the Zen Center blog that day, waiting for news hearts in throat–as were their friends, other family and loved ones, and the full community. A couple quick phone calls were all the news that came out, and then the one saying it was over, the fire had moved on.It sounds from Steve’s account that at least a few others of the 15 who left wanted to go back in when the 5 turned back, and Steve, as Abbot, made the decision that it would only be the five senior staff who did return. He did this under tremendous time pressure, midway through the course of the evacuation, because he didn’t feel there was time for those who wanted to go back to fully discuss or know the implications. He was quite prepared, it seems, to go back alone, just to keep the gasoline pumps fueled to keep the sprinklers going on the rooftops. (And he is recommending, as someone suggested in this blog’s comments days back, that a system of permanent sprinklers now be installed on all the roofs.)Asked after the talk how many he thought would be a good number to have in there, should this happen again, he answered, “20.” That’s my memory of what we had in ’77–around 14 or 16 residents, and three professional firefighters helping us out.Steve expressed no blame for any decision made by the various fire authorities–not the decision to evacuate the residents, not the decision to pull out themselves. Mostly he just described his own decision, and that of the four others, as taking responsibility on their own for what they chose to do. When the recommendation came to leave, they simply discovered they couldn’t do it.I can’t describe his account of the full episode, and there’s already a link here to David Zimmerman’s account– but one moment Steve described was when they thought that Mako, the woman firefighter, who was at that point alone defending one end of Tassajara, was asking for Gatorade over the walkie talkie… She was in fact–I guess the reception was garbled–trying to tell them a case of Gatorade left behind by the Indiana fire team was actually burning, and threatening to set the main hot springs bath building on fire. She was busy protecting another structure with a hose. Steve went and helped put it out, with water scooped up in a bucket. To me, that says something about heat–that plastic bottles could burn without being put out by the liquid inside them isn’t something I’d have guessed. And so, shovelful by hoseful by bucketful, Tassajara was saved.

  • Mike says:

    Mike, if look at the way the engines are parked at the Hastings parking lot you see how overgrown the vegetation is. You see as well how the engines are tightly packed in.In many respects this property is less defensible than the Tassajara Center.The images paint a fair representation though I have not visited either.Sand Dollar–Mom, I understand your main point. A CalFire Captain was on the Tassajara grounds before the fire swept in an it sounds like he assumed all along the Forest Service would be sending in a crew. Sounds like he felt it was defensible.The facility had once before been saved from fire and the fire command had a structure protection plan drawn up.I applaud your children for their chosen occupation. It would be interesting if you asked them what they think about this situation. I’d bet they would have liked to stand side by side with the Monks.Kate, yes Esperanza was a completely different scenario. Area ignition at the top of a chimney. 50-70 mph Santa Ana’s broke the fire from under an inversion straight up canyon. Thank you for the comments!

  • bigsurkate says:

    Access is probably the reason given, but if one has been following Mike’s blog, it seems the fire team (USFS/CalFire, etc) already had mapped out a strategy for structure protection there, at the Center.I read the article about the firefighters who lost their lives in the Esperanza fire in Oct of 2006, and it seemed to be a somewhat different situation. But then, I am not a firefighter like Mike, nor the mother of one like Sand Dollar, so my opinion means diddly squat.

  • Sand Dollar says:

    "Fire — A Mother's Point of View" From Big Sur CaliforniaCenter, Balance, our core, whateveryou want to call it, we seemed to have lost it in this Country. Quoting your statistics "The state of Califorina is experiencing the worst wildfire crisis in modern state history. Why are we experiencing this significant event? There are many, many factors but probably the one at the top of the list would be because we have created designated Wilderness's in & around many of our Forests. Thay have been protected & not allowed to burn for over 50 years. This in turn creates what we are now experiencing. I call it the un-controllable burn factor. Because the Wilderness has been allowed to grow in some areas for more than 40to 50 years 80% of US Fire Resources for Firefighting are deployed in California right now!!Quoting your statistics again "In June 1700 Wildland Fires were burning. An estimated 700,000 acreshave burned so far". The Big Sur "Basin Complex Fire" is now the 6th largest in State history. There are ways to prevent these types of fires from occurring & bringing the Forests back into balance. This would prevent peoplefrom losing their homes as well. If we take a look back in time we will see that the Indians & Old Times used to do control burning. Our good friend Don Harlan utilized this tool to control the over growth of brush.I am deeply saddened by the loss of so many homes. I know that Big Sur folks rally around each other & will help everyone re-build. This does indeed speak to our center, our core, the spirit of the community. Last but not least, there were NO Lives Lost!I have also read the blogs with question "Why didn't the Forest Service stay with specific properties"?? The answer is in the first few weeks of Fire Season. The "Summit Fire" in Santa Cruz was coming to a close but on it's heels were all of those other fires……… The "Indians Fire" started next, then the "Trabing Fire" up by Watsonville & then the Lightning Strikes. What happened to make this any different? Fire Crews on the "Indians Fire", "Trabing Fire", & a couple of other fires got "Burnt Over" Inflicting Serious Injuries to those Crews. The Season had started off with a Bang which could only be described as the "Perfect Storm"! Very hot weather, mixed tinder dry brush & sudden oak death laden trees made for ripe conditions. The situation was so bad that Administration from several different Fire Agencies ordered a "Stand Down Day". The Firefighters were there, & they wanted to do their jobs but someone at the top said "You will not lose Your "LIFE" protecting a structure. This was a Very Wise Wake Up Call. & all Mothers applauded it. I have 3 Friends whose Sons work for Cal-Fire. I know that they don't want to get that call saying that their Son didn't make it. I have 2 Sons & a Daughter-In-Law that are Firefighters & if you have done your Seasonal Fire Clearance on your property & it can be protected without serious jeopardy to life they too, will stay with it. My Sons have been Firemen for 10 years & have a work ethic that would put most to shame. They have worked for 3 straight weeks to keep fire houses & engines staffed.We did lose one Fireman in Butte County to a heart attack. We also lost a whole crew down on the "Esperanza Fire" in 2006. We take these lessons & try to learn from them. I know that the Monks at Tassajara would have felt very bad if some kid died trying to protect a structure. Someone asked why the Forest Service didn't stay with this one too? The Forest Service did go in & Prep the property & put "Thermogel" on the structure. I did look at the picture of what they wanted defended & it looked like it was in a Box Canyon?? That in itself tells me why they would not permit a crew to stay with it. Would you want to be the Commander who commited a crew to die? If you are an Adult & you make the decision to stay with your property than that is your right. But if you are making that decision for someong else & they die then that is totally different.We as Mother's know instinctively most of the time when & how to look out for our Children. Whether it's looking out for our Children, our Community or our World we all need to do it from a fair & balanced point of view. If we could all remember to ask ourselves:"Are our motives thoughtful, honest, intelligent, necessary & kind we could bring our world a little closer to center.Sand Dollar — Big Sur

  • Mike says:

    One question has been on my mind regarding the Zen center being abandoned. Was this a decision with regards to the safety of firefighters that would have been stationed with the structure? I am not a firefighter but I am in EMS and fully ICS trained and safety is a very important factor in ICS. The Zen center is at the end of a road where the fire was heading in a direction to cut off the area’s road access. Could this have been the reason for the decision to abandon? I also don’t believe the UC research center was in danger of having firefighters cut off and unable to evacuate if needed.

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Mike Morales

Retired Cal Fire/CDF Fire Captain

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