"I Think We Saved Tassajara" A Fire Story Like No Other

Tassajara Mountain Center Director David Zimmerman recounts how he and four fellow “fire-monks” faced the Basin Complex Fire as it swept down canyon from four sides on the afternoon of July 10.

We read about preparations for the fire’s arrival and circumstances that led to the decision to stay, now we are treated to a remarkable recounting of the day flames arrived.

Read the story here of the “Tassajara Five” here.

The monks were denied help from the Forest Service during and after the fire arrived even as helicopters and tankers circled above. I posted on the plight of the Center here and here. They were abandoned, even as they requested help by phone as the fire raged about the compound.

$80,000,000 was spent on the 162,000 acre Basin Complex fire and the Tassajara Mountain Center was the only structure on the entire east side of the massive blaze!

13 Comments

  • Anonymous says:

    According to the Tassajara account, the fire was a lot hotter and faster moving than originally expected when it approached the monastery. The decision not to send crews in was probably a last-minute call based on the change in fire conditions, which suddenly presented an “undue risk” to firefighters’ lives. It’s a tough call, especially after reading about the firefighter who died in a burnover when the winds suddenly shifted on the Panther Fire.

  • Mike says:

    One more thing, they should have told the monks at Tassajara that they would be left alone instead of leaving any doubt.I suspect there could be some liability in not taking a clear stance.Assume for a minute your local municipal fire department showed up to a burning home and decided a fire was too risky to put out?The Forest Service needs to refine OR afirm their current mission statement. One or the other.

  • Mike says:

    Great comment. Your explanation could indeed be the reason why the F.S abandoned so many defensible properties on the Basin Fire.I figured the Esperanza incident played a part. If this is the new policy then people living in the urban rural interface need to know they are on their own if they live in a Fed. area of responsibility.CalFire fortunately will do structure protection.I wonder if insurance companies are up to speed on this new policy, if indeed it is the new policy.Also, if the Forest Service has adopted this stance then they could reduce their budgets, sell some engines and invest in flares and drip torches.Just cut line and fire out, chase spot fires from the road and let entire forests burn.To tell you the truth it’s looking like I should buy a fire engine and hire out private.Insurance companies should be interested clients!

  • Anonymous says:

    On-the-ground fire crews weren’t sent into Tassajara or Apple Pie and Partington Ridges because Forest Service policy specifically prohibits it. After the Engine 57 deaths in the Esperanza fire, the FS decreed that its incident commanders were not to use firefighters for structure protection where there was an undue risk of death. Unfortunately, “undue risk of death” is ill-defined, and the Forest Service not only aggressively investigates but prosecutes incident commanders who commit a fatal error. As a result, incident commanders play it extra safe, since the alternative could mean not only the loss of their jobs and pensions, but jail time. Instead, they have to classify difficult-to-access structures as “indefensible” and make residents who insist on staying sign a release of liability form. It’s typical federal government: protect your deep pocket by shifting the problem onto somebody else, in this case, the incident commanders and residents. Unfortunately, the threat of prosecution also means that federal firefighters involved in a fatality incident are reluctant to talk about it, so there’s less opportunity to learn from past mistakes.

  • Mike says:

    Thanks for the comment MB. Sobbering reminder about Firefighter Andrew Palmer, one of the three line of duty deaths this year. The three represent the youngest, oldest and the most experienced firefighters on the firelines this summer.Death and firefighting, no rationale, it’s random, a dangerous calling.As for the T.M.C., what a story. I wonder if the Center and The Five are entertaining offers from screenwriters. The heroes and villain have been cast!

  • mb in Port Angeles says:

    Capt. Mike -I just re-read David Z.’s account and am grateful all over again that none of them were hammered by falling rocks or other accidents (think of firefighter Andrew Palmer who was killed earlier this week by a falling tree). It sounds like they worked carefully, but they were also very lucky. The other thought I have is that this was not a single structure they were defending. Tassajara ZMC is an entire complex of buildings, a village, perhaps a tiny town; and there was just the five of them running and hosing and running and hosing. You should try to visit sometime and see it on the ground. I lived in the far end of Tassajara’s lower barn one summer about 30 years ago; from there to the Flats is an astonishing distance for five people to successfully cover and defend.

  • Anonymous says:

    Mike, your comment about five human beings is what I find the most disturbing about USFS's hanging Tassajara out to dry. OK, fine if USFS wants to ignore buildings & let them burn, but there were PEOPLE in there not even getting minimal air support. This episode could've so easily been tragic instead of triumphant.A friend of mine who is a retired firefighter said there are "winner" fires and "loser" fires and because of Tassajara's remote location, it was a "loser" & therefore USFS was justified in not bringing in ground support. OK, maybe, but again that kind of thinking fits buildings better than people. However, I guess that's the kind of thinking we should expect from an agency that thinks burning everything within a given perimeter is "fighting" fire. –disgruntled taxpayer

  • Mike says:

    I did not say they were second string, they were the remnants of the Indians spike camp. That fact makes the situation up in Tassajara more disturbing because the Indians team had contingency plans drawn up for the Tassajara compound weeks earlier.If I were still working fires I would have relished the fight and would have had no problem bringing in my engine crew. I ran 17 man fire crews for most of my career and would have had NO problem assuming a role in that canyon.One close relative of mine who has forgotten more about firefighting than I ever knew told me he would have loved to help the monks.As I recall the situation, the Cal Fire captain positioned at Tassajara helping prepare the grounds assumed to the last minute there would be professional firefighters brought in.I trust his judgment.Anonymous, please tell all where the air support would have been diverted from to assist the five live humans working in the canyon to save their home and school?If you followed the incident you know the Cachagua Valley and Jamesburg, indeed the entire lower Carmel Valley were days away from being in danger.Tassajara was absolutely defensible, it was proven during the Marble Cone when residents successfully fought off flames with the help of a few firefighters.It was even more defensible this time as they had sprinklers, some wrapping and working pumps.In every case residents stood and fought on the Basin Complex (Partington Ridge, Apple Pie Ridge, Tassajara) the homes and buildings were saved. I stand by what I wrote, the Forest Service punted Tassajara, shamefully.Does anyone seriously believe their would have been a strain on Basin Complex resources to have a tanker drop a load or a helicopter deliver a couple of buckets?I asked this before, why even fight the fire on the east side?They could have just fired out from the Carmel Valley!To summarize, the Forest Service choked.Mike

  • Anonymous says:

    The east side team was CIMT Team 1, headed by Jerry McGowan. His team transferred over from the Indians Fire but that certainly doesn’t render them second string. They were in charge of east side operations until Jeanne Pincha-Tulley took over. In fact, Pincha-Tulley noted that she was using McGowan’s containment plan in an interview on KUSP soon after her incident team took over.Also, if you read the part 1 of the Tassajara firefight account, the retired fire captain who had been helping the monks advised that they pull out. Instead of the slow spread of fire into the monastery grounds he had anticipated, the fire was burning in 100-degree weather, with single-digit humidity and pushed by 30 mph wind gusts. At the time, the firefighters were still struggling for containment in the north and south, as well as trying to slow the fire’s spread to the east and Carmel Valley. Finally, the dirt road that dead-ends at Tassajara winds along the cliff of the mountain for 20 miles and is bordered by trees and heavy boulders. It is the only way in and out. When you were a fire captain, would you really have ordered an engine company of 20-year-olds to stay there as the fire roared toward them or diverted air resources from protecting heavily populated communities?

  • Mike says:

    Anonymous, take a look at the maps of the back side of the Basin Complex. Tassajara was the only structure within miles. It’s a 14 mile dirt road ride to the compound from the Carmel Valley.I do know they set up an east side command team, I wrote about it as it was being formed weeks before the fire swept through the Center.That team was made up primarilly of remnants from the Indians Fire.You may recall the Indians Fire threateaned Tassajara and plans were put in place then to help the monks.Everyone knew they were there, a structure protection plan had already been drawn up.Forest Service dropped the ball here, period.Why?Mike

  • Anonymous says:

    Tassajara was one of MANY structures on the east side of the Basin Complex, which threatened homes and businesses in the communities of Carmel Valley, Cachagua, and Arroyo Seco. The eastern half of the fire threatened so many structures that it had its own Type 1 Incident Management Team, separate from Dietrich’s team in the west.

  • Mike says:

    Anon, Even the guys over at Wildland Fire are frustrated that NO MAP delineating Branches and Divisions has been released. If they can’t get it no one can.It’s a PR gaff without question. You have people like yourself that are trying to make sense of how their properties are doing and they are not able to do so easily.I have followed along as closely as I can and I could not tell you where division I is!Div R is near Colorado Road, Div M is Black Mountain (I think).With all the money being spent on these fires you would think they could free up someone to blog or maybe stand on a corner (or a kiosk) bearing maps and info.This general lack of concern for residents makes you say W. T. F. out loud.In this day of instant communication a nightly meeting is simply not enough.These teams need to enter the Web2 world.Best of luck with your property.Mike

  • Anonymous says:

    Mike, your blog and analysis were invaluable as I followed the Basin fire (I have a friend who lives at Tassajara.) Now, unfortunately, family is close to the Telegraph.I've had a frustrating time trying to get clear info (thanks again for your site!) So much is happening on the scanner – without a sense of where Nora, Bravo, Zulu, etc., Branch 1, Branch 2, etc. are, I can't seem to grasp the entire picture. (Although I grok that it's BIG and Chaotic. But everyone seems to know what they're doing.)You may have seen this: http://www.wildlandfire.com/hotlist/showthread.php?t=5951&page=4Check post #38. With your expertise you'll be able to track the big picture.

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Mike Morales

Retired Cal Fire/CDF Fire Captain

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