Tassajara Fire Page
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A History of Fire at Tassajara by DC
1999 Kirk Creek Fire posts on cuke.com
unrelated Fire report for the other Tassajara in Contra Costa Country, CA
2008 Fire at Tassajara
a book on the 2008 fire
Available July 7, 2011 - Fire Monks events page on Busch's Fire Monks' website
Fire Monks put a magnifying glass on this story, sucked me into the drama, and kept me up way past my bedtime. Zen doesn't have to be boring. - DC - Further DC comment on Fire Monks
Sitting with Fire - an excellent blog on the 2008 Tassajara fire
Firefighter Blog - Tassajara Fire Monks' Story Remains Untold
Flicker photo set of 2008 fire from makovoelkel's photostream
No Zen in the West with Why I won't read Fire Monks
8-29-11 - How to Decide by Not Deciding - Colleen Morton Busch who wrote Fire Monks on the Huff Post.
4-28-13 - Leland Smithson remembers the fire of 1977
Posts from cuke.com on the 2008 Tassajara
11-18-08 - Judy Gilbert Tassajara fire photos. I've asked her for info to go with each but till then here they are.
- filed in the Tass 08 Fire Dept
9-22-08 - Was standing at work meeting at Tassajara this morning when someone announced that at 8:44 this morning (Pacific Standard Time) we're officially in the autumn season. Happy equinox! - dc
9-17-08 - Photos of Tassajara after the fire by Shundo David Haye - more from him and others to come. Please pardon my tardiness. - dc
click thumbnails to enlarge
Filed in Tassajara Fire '08
8-10-08 - Off to Tassajara for ten days - burglars take note.
8-02-02 - The Day the Fire Arrived more great stuff from David Zimmerman
And a photo of the Tassajara Five illustrating the point of Gene's poem
7-24-08 - The story is still being told at Sitting with Fire and on the SFZC Fire Info page. Make sure you haven't missed this account called The Events Surrounding the Third Evacuation and the Tassajara Five's Return.
Hooray for the Tassajara Five!
L to R: Graham Ross, Mako Voelkel, David Zimmerman, Steve Stucky, Colin Gipson
7-15-08 - from Firefighter Blog: Tassajara "Fire Monks" Story Remains Untold
7-13-08 - Tassajara Fire Update - various reports and media
7-11-08 - The links below are still the best links to info on the Tassajara fire which is there right now.
a Springs, Zen Mt. Center guests have had to leave due to nearby fires - the whole forest is closed. Hit that link on the SFZC site and there's more info. Students who wanted to stay were permitted to do so. I see it was closed on the 23rd. That's all I know. Here's a link to US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page.
6-27-08 - 6-27-08 - KUSP Emergency Big Sur - a good link to follow the fire in the Los Padres National Forest. We cams including one from Nepenthe. Thanks John Steiner. Here's a better US Forest Service link for updates on the fires.
Talked to SFZC co-abbot yesterday and learned that there are only 14 students now at Tassajara and that the Forest Service is advising them on what to do to prepare for the fire which should reach there in a couple of days. More people might go back in to help out. Right now there are a bunch of Tassajara refugees at the City Center. See entry for 6-25 right below. SFZC link. US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page. I think they're not too too worried but it IS fire and in the forest.
6-28-08 - There's an update on the SFZC site on the fires near Tassajara. US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page. But the best is Sitting with Fire, a blog from Jamesburg specifically on this fire.
6-25-08 - Tassajara Springs, Zen Mt. Center guests have had to leave due to nearby fires - the whole forest is closed. Hit that link on the SFZC site and there's more info. Students who wanted to stay were permitted to do so. I see it was closed on the 23rd. That's all I know. Here's a link to US Forest Service Los Padres National Forest page.
A History of Fire at Tassajara
by David Chadwick
Mostly written in the fall of 2010 for Colleen Busch as background for Fire Monks.
Posted April 4-14-2011 with the following note:
Fire Monks won't be released till July 7th, but advance copies are out and there's a note in the back that says for history on fire at Tassajara to go to cuke.com/tassfire. So here it is. Corrections and additional information are welcome. Later I can add articles like from the Wind Bell that give more full descriptions and background. - dc
When Shunryu Suzuki arrived at Tassajara, he'd go right
away to the zendo to offer incense and do bows. He'd do the same before
leaving. At one such time after having driven him in, I handed him a lit
stick of incense at the altar, and before he bowed, he turned to me and
said, "Many temples in Japan have burned down from one stick of incense."
“In 1924 on the eighth of August a fire started in Cachagua and burned all the way to Indians to the coast and back. It burned for 68 days. Hundreds of thousands of acres burned. In 1928 there was the Halleck Fire, Halleck Canyon where the Zens are. It burned everything again. Then there was nothing around here till the Marble Cone fire in ’77 and then the Kirk Fire in ’99. There had been no fire because the forest was over-protected.”
Cachagua is a community down the mountain next to Jamesburg on the way to Carmel Valley. Jamesburg is where the dirt road to Tassajara begins. The Indians is a section of the forest. I never heard of Halleck Canyon. Fred also said, “My dad bought two ranches from booze. My mom taught him how.”
This site has some great photos of The Indians and Arroyo Seco sections of Los Padres.
I think Fred may have forgotten or not been aware of one fire. I stumbled upon this sentence in something I was preparing to go up onto cuke: The Buckeye Fire burned 44,000 acres and got to Willow Creek just over the Tony Trail. That's from TASSAJARA AND SUZUKI IN THE TIME OF THE SANDOKAI TALKS which was 1970. I just Googled that and found this: - added 4-24-11
A month after the fire, at Tassajara, I took some notes from a chat with Mark Alexander and Keith James about the history of fire within Tassajara. I’ve made a few calls to some others. I’m sure there are many more incidents, especially further in the past, and some of it may be in some of the historical interviews and clippings that exist, but here’s what we came up with.
There was the well known Tassajara hotel fire in '49. There was a two story sandstone hotel, where the zendo is now. The fire went up to burn some other buildings where the shops are. Joan Crawford’s ex-husband was the owner then. He was there. Some suspected him of arson. The remaining building stones were bulldozed into the basement. When we first made a garden there back in '67, I remember us digging up one big sandstone block after another.
Got this off the worthapedia site: 1949 FOREST FIRE Vintage TASSAJARA HOT SPRINGS Photo [you can’t see it but it’s for sale]
Subject : A number of guests of the Tassajara Hot Springs resort were trapped in the area by a forest fire. they inspect the main building and cabins the following day.
Anna Beck who owned Tassajara with her husband Bob (RIP) from '60 through '66 says she knows of no fires there from the time of the hotel fire. She says that they had a pottery program with kilns down creek by the lower barn fired so hot that the Forest Service surely would have disapproved.
I didn’t remember anything from the sixties. Peter Snyder remembers no fires back then.
But once in the middle of a frigid winter on a day off some of us went into the dining room and loaded the stove there with kindling and kept pilling it in till it turned red hot then the stove pipe turned red hot and we stopped loading the stove and watched nervously as the stovepipe cooled while one of us kept watch upstairs to make sure nothing started smoldering there.
There was a long-term compost pile at Grasshopper Flats that caught fire one night in 1972. Alan Block remembers it. He says it was spring, early in the guest season, May or June. For several years brush and deadfall too small for firewood had been cleared from the hillsides at the Flats as a fire prevention measure. Unfortunately all this flammable material was stored in an area surrounded by trees– straight ahead in the Flats as you approach from the road going by the baths. Alan says there was a lot of cardboard mixed in which they’d pull out of the pile before it caught fire and so the water could get to the flames better, flames which licked the lower branches of the surrounding trees, catching some of them on fire. Students, including David Silva manning hoses from the floating pump barely kept it from spreading. It was reported after evening zazen and students fought it all night. I remember hearing that Daya Goldschlag stuck with it till a fire truck arrived from Carmel Valley in the morning after it was completely out. Jed Linde was there and I think he may have been the one who reported it or to whom it was reported. I heard about it in the city where I was work leader and was relieved that it didn’t spread and become a major fire. I was also glad that no one seemed to remember that the long term compost and placement of it had been my idea as Tassajara work leader.
In 1975 when I was Tassajara director, I took all the electrical wire we'd collected for years and put it in a 55 gallon drum and poured gasoline on it to burn away the covering and it shot an enormous amount of smoke way way up so I ran to the office to call the Forest Service right away to let them know there was no forest fire. There was no one with me either to stay there and watch it. Bad judgment.
I walked around Tassajara that year with a Forest Ranger who was assessing our fire-fighting capability and making suggestions and as we were saying goodbye in front of the old zendo, he said, “It’s not if you’re going to have a fire here, it’s when.”
Marc and/or Keith vaguely recalled a few small fires. In '77 or '78 the town trip truck got an engine fire. That rings a bell with Ted Marshall. Also that year some shop rags caught fire. And there was something about a candle making operation causing a fire in the early eighties. They also thought there had been a small fire out at grasshopper flats in the winter of '77-'78 that was related to an ashes spreading ceremony someone was doing. But they wanted to hear from others who remembered better on these small incidents. [send any info to firstname.lastname@example.org]
Then of course in August, 1977 was the Marble Cone Fire. I got a call about it and drove from Bolinas (five or six hours) to Jamesburg where all the students and abbot Richard Baker were staying, Tassajara having been evacuated. I remember visiting neighbor Danny Werner in Cachagua (a friend of my sister’s whose main house was in SF) and he made his hot tub available to the Tassajara evacuees. I went in to Tassajara with a group at night to do some preparation – like getting sprinklers on roofs. On the way in we stopped to look out over the ridges at the distant approaching fire. Beautiful.
There was a pickup truck there. I walked over to it and said hello. There were two Forest Service scouts in it who said they were looking for places from which to fight the fire. They didn’t know about Tassajara. I urged them to go in with us and introduced Ed Brown to them suggesting that he show them around. I also urged them to meet Baker Roshi on their way out. I said that when I left he was on the phone to Governor Jerry Brown and General Frank Schober, head of the California National Guard. Brown had first come when I was director when he was governor elect. I’d helped to get his fire-fighting California Conservation Corps going and had had dealings with Schober too. I made a call to the director of the CCC who said they could only respond if invited and tended to stick to state controlled areas and not to be invited into federal business.
The two scouts did stop by the Jamesburg house, and became key allies in helping to protect Tassajara, and the relationship was mutually beneficial as I remember it. I can’t remember their names but they were written about in a Wind Bell which came out later and told all about the fire. I remember going into Tassajara several times with Baker who commandeered my car and drove it through areas where there was fire on both sides. I remember falling asleep and him waking me up saying, “Prepare to go through a wall of flame.” I hated to run out on him and my fellow students before the fire got down to Tassajara, but I had arranged to drive two four year olds, my son Kelly and Ethan Patchel, to Texas, and I didn’t feel like they needed more bodies. Indeed, not everyone returned to meet the fire. And they did well. Colleen Busch writes about this fire some in Fire Monks.
In April of 1978 was the Tassajara zendo fire which happened during a shosan, question and answer, ceremony in the zendo. Someone announced they smelled smoke during one of the early questions to the abbot, Richard Baker. First smoke and then fire came up the stairs from the basement between the kitchen and the zendo. I remember Baker Roshi saying that after someone said there was smoke in back that he took a breath with his eyes down, collecting himself for action, and that when he put his eyes back up a second later that fire was visible coming up the stairs. People exited through the side door to the zendo and I also remember hearing that the last ones out got the back of their heads singed, not badly but enough to remember. There was no time to get the wonderful big irreplaceable mokugyo (wooden drum) that had been, I believe, a gift from Eiheiji monastery in Japan, or the the big drum or the wonderful big bowl bell and the great sycamore slab that was up behind the altar, and many more items. I don't know how much was lost in the library but I would imagine that we lost some Suzuki Roshi lectures. The kitchen was saved because of a firewall that the county made us put in against our will - I remember hearing.
There are many interesting details and stories I’ve heard about this fire and it’s sort of a can of worms with several people saying they were blamed for not putting it out and some strange claims that are hard for me to believe. Poor Tassajara was completely unprepared. Alan Block was on the fire crew and said he’d impulsively written the abbot a letter earlier saying that Tassajara was not prepared for fire, was not protected and that something should be done about it. Ted Marshall was the fire marshal [which is only natural, like Major Major Major immediately becoming a major in the army upon enlisting - in Catch 22]. Ted says he immediately ran to get a fire extinguisher and was poised over the flame and was told by the abbot to drop it and get the fire crew together and says he regrets having followed that order because he’s convinced he could have put it out.
Alan Block was the person in choki (kneeling) getting ready to ask the next question when the fire was reported and he says that he had the fire hose pointed at it with Ginny Baker on assisting, but that the water didn’t come. The pipes had been washed out in the winter’s heavy flow of water following the Marble Cone Fire and the fire hose was running through the trees and there was no pressure. Alan and others say that they don’t believe that Ted could have put it out.
Marc Alexander was working on a standpipe system that wasn’t finished yet. Had a candle been left burning in the chiden (candle and incense prep) area? Did it come from one of the propane refrigerators? Was it arson from an old ZC friend who had arrived unannounced in the morning with a woman and was asked to leave after a nasty exchange that she claims turned into a fist fight – or did that happen at all?
Ted says there was a group meeting in the courtyard the day after which he was asked to skip so he could take care of some Forest Service personnel but which he watched and listened to from the dining room, a meeting where he was blamed for the fire. He says he felt betrayed, went to bed for a couple of days, left Tassajara, and a couple of days later was driving a logging truck. Marc says he was blamed. Alan says the work leader Jay Simoneaux (whom Ted says was asst. fire marshal) felt it was his fault. Marc remembers apologizing to abbot Richard Baker the next day and being told it wasn’t his fault but that he knew who had done it or something like that. Baker Roshi has no idea about that now. Everyone seems to have been quite emotional at the time but not so later.
I remember after the fire I was asked if I knew anyone who might be able to restore the stone Buddha from the zendo which had been smashed into pieces. As I remember it I called Lanier Graham who did suggest someone who's mentioned in the Fire Monks book. Whenever I see that old stone Gupta or Gandhara buddha, I marvel at what an excellent job he did. You can't tell it was broken into pieces.
In September, 1999 there was the Kirk Creek Fire which threatened Tassajara but which didn’t get there. Cuke.com was not yet a year old and served as a touchstone for many people to keep up with fire news. It’s all still there though surely many of the links are bad. Try it out - 1999 Kirk Creek Fire posts on cuke.com
Keith said that after evening zazen some time in 2000 on the back porch of the kitchen, a water heater shot flame out so that it ignited the bamboo fence and that Gaelyn Goodwin found it and put it out before it spread.
In mid July of 2005, a student named Alexis who was living closest to the entrance in the old gatehouse on the road by the upper garden had awakened, couldn't go back to sleep, and was reading with a light on when someone started knocking frantically on his door calling out that there was a fire up the road.
Sonoma buddy and former Suzuki student Dennis Samson said it was three thirty in the morning when he was awakened. Quickly he and a few other students were dressed and driving up the road with some tools and fire extinguishers. The guy who’d alerted them ran up the road barefoot ahead of the Tassajara truck with a fire extinguisher in hand.
Dennis said the fire had gotten going enough to where the Tassajara crew was hesitant to get into it until the barefoot fellow went running right into the middle of it with fire extinguisher gushing. Eventually they got it under control. When asked why he so fearlessly charged the fire to put it out, the guy said that he'd rather die than start a forest fire. He said it was his fault, that he’d fallen asleep smoking a cigarette.
People from the California Division of Forestry arrived two hours later and were grateful that the Tassajara folks and the illegal camper had put the fire out. They spied another spot on a nearby ridge which was still smoking and put that out. It was thought at the time that it came from a spark that had wafted up to a higher spot but later I heard that the CDF said that there was evidence that the camper had been there too. I think he was arrested but don't know for sure. There’s probably some report on all this filed somewhere.
Dennis said the guy was a bit whacky and wondered what was the true story behind these fires. It’s not easy to start a fire with a cigarette. It happens, but a ranger once told me he’d tried and tried to throw a cigarette into dry leaves etc and get a fire going and had never been able to. He thought that sparks from vehicles and other machines was a more frequent cause of fires.
Clay and I were staying in the hill cabins and heard about it after breakfast. It was so dry down there with so much dead wood and leaves on the ground that it seemed like a miracle an out of control forest fire didn’t happen. Later in the day some visitors from nearby Jamesburg were there and one of them who has experience fighting fires said that the reason that the fire didn't spread faster is that the humidity was too high at that time in the morning. He also said that the forest service used to do controlled burns but that that's not happening now and so the woods keep building up to the point they're in now where you can't get through them so easy - they are full of "ladder material," the brush and low and fallen branches that fire climbs to get to the top of trees. He said there's a lot of kindling there that keeps growing and waiting for the next opportunity to burn. The next opportunity came in July, 2008, the Big Basin Fire, started by lightning.
I remember that the overwhelming impression I had upon going to Tass after the 2008 fire was how much was not burned. I’d been posting reports and photos and videos on cuke.com throughout the saga of the fire and of course all this focused on what was burned not what wasn’t. I marveled at how much was green and not burned, how little was damaged, how wonderful it was to have all the excess brush and overgrowth burned off, how we could once again see from the vistas on the road. There was a lot burned, especially as you got up higher – but I thought the mountains needed it. Now one could see vistas from the road in places that were overgrown with chaparral. I trusted it would come back strong. I also remember the ankle deep ash walking up and down creek – and all the poison oak burned away but the first to sprout to come back, and the giant bright green leaves sprouting from the base of burned Sycamore trees. Two Forest Rangers I met who were surveying the area said the fire had left a healthy mosaic.
One thing I'm wondering is do we leave the incense by itself burning on the altars? When Suzuki made that comment to me about all the temples burning down, when we were the only people in the zendo and getting ready to leave, did we just leave it there burning?
I read Fire Monks in India. A publicist wanted a blurb and had emailed me a few chapters which I said I enjoyed but wanted to read the rest of the book before I sent anything. Colleen sent me the latest corrected version. I sent a blurb which is on her website and at the top of this page. I also sent a short list of little errors, mainly historical, and a short list of suggested small changes. I read the book straight through, staying up all night. I liked it a lot.
I lived at Tassajara for seven years and have been work leader, fire marshal, head monk, director, ran the dining room for the first four years and always have dealt with guests and outsiders, a lot with Forest Service people and firefighters and have had many conversations with them about how dangerous it would be to stay at Tassajara when a forest fire was passing through. Invariably they gave the impression they wouldn't be very worried about staying there to protect the place. The trees are spread out and I think they wouldn't support a crown fire. It didn't seem likely it would get hot enough to cook one or suck up all the oxygen - and there's the creek and the pool. Reading the book one will see that Tassajara people with responsibility felt that way as this fire approached. I put myself in the action and as I read found myself telling them not to leave and saying I refused to leave when the others did and going to hide so they couldn't force me. But reading the book also made me realize that it wasn't that simple, that it might not be what was expected. For the first time I experienced doubt and wondered what the right thing to do was. I love the uncertainty that the book conveyed, the confusion.
Those who left were not at all portrayed as having done so by choice - except for a few - and their decisions seemed to make sense. I've heard that some were upset they didn't get the chance to go. The ones who returned just barely did so and it seemed like five might have been the best number. I wished I'd been there, but it was not my turn. I'm glad they went back. I would have been very pissed if they hadn't.
The two things that bothered me a little about the book were calling Steve, Abbot Steve every time, and there was a bit too much Zen philosophizing for me. But I imagine many people will like that. Some people don't like the discrimination between the Tassajara heroes and the Tassajara others. I'd add that (not singling out the book here but the culture surrounding it) we should be careful of discrimination between Zen practitioners and others - as if the Zen folks had some edge they'd gained that made them superior. I know it's said to be that way but I've never noticed it. It's understandable that we'd have these sorts of reservations about all the Zen hero hoopla, but it seems to have been unavoidable. I've been guilty of it myself - check out the posts above from when it was happening. Regardless, it will all fade into obscurity, the resentment slower than the cheering. Anyway, I like Colleen, her writing, and this book. Onward.
I wrote the above review of Fire Monks after reading Why I won't read Fire Monks in the No Zen in the West blog by Jiryu. Jiryu then wrote a blog entitled Are Zen People Better? which referred to the sentence above which ends with we should be careful of discrimination between Zen practitioners and others - as if the Zen folks had some edge they'd gained that made them superior. I know it's said to be that way but I've never noticed it. - and in which he then others made various interesting observations. I'd just like to add further that I wasn't commenting on the efficacy of Zen practice or Zen or its affiliates and employees and I'm not sure what the parameters of that statement were at the time, but I think I was thinking mainly of who'd be better at fighting fires or making quick decisions and so forth (although it could extend to anything phenomenal such as who's a nicer person, who dances better, etc). Like dear departed Katagiri Dainin used to say, "Zen is useless." But maybe sometimes people with Zen or other monastic training do function better. I could believe that. Like the Shaolin monks who can single-handedly defeat entire armies - I've seen them do it. Someone said recently that of the Japanese WWII soldiers who'd gone into hiding in jungles, those who had Zen training had a higher survival rate. I don't know what their source was. I had a landlord in Okayama without Zen training who'd survived alone in the Philippine jungle for months eating dragon flies and anything he could get his hands on. He was also mean to his wife. She told me she'd be watching TV and he'd walk through the room and turn it off as he passed the set. In the California Conservation Corps, we found (back in the late seventies) that the females (18-21) were better than the males at everything including fighting fires. But they might not have had very deep samadhi. Suzuki Shunryu said that a farmer in his area who didn't practice Zen was the most enlightened person around. I brought a psychic I knew to Green Gulch, an old tough straightforward guy. After we'd been walking around for a while he said that the people there were on the whole on pretty good spiritual paths. I asked him what made him think so. He said because they're disturbed. He said that people who believe their delusions are more at peace with themselves. That was during the Iran-Iraq war and he said, for instance, a lot of people over there do not question their beliefs and have got the same prejudices they've had for lifetime after lifetime and they have no doubt in their minds and they can fight and hate and die like idiots without a second thought. These people, on the other hand, he said referring to the students at Green Gulch, are challenging their programming conscious and sub-conscious so they've upset their cart. Whether one thinks the psychic part is a bunch of hoey or not, to me he made an interesting point. Getting back to pyrotechnics and with an apology to Muslims everywhere whom I've always found to be good, decent people, when the Muslim armies swept through India over 800 years ago, they not only burned Naropa, they made mountains out of monks and set them on fire. Again, the monks' Buddhist practice did not appear to make them better at dealing with that situation, but I'd prefer their karma. - dc
Colleen Morton Busch - Author
Book: Hardcover | 5.98 x 9.01in | 272 pages | ISBN 9781594202919 | 07 Jul 2011 | The Penguin Press | 18 - AND UP
Available July 7, 2011
The true story of how five monks saved the oldest Zen Buddhist monastery in the United States from wildfire.
When a massive wildfire surrounded Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, five monks risked their lives to save it. A gripping narrative as well as a portrait of the Zen path and the ways of wildfire, Fire Monks reveals what it means to meet a crisis with full presence of mind.
Zen master and author of the classic Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind, Shunryu Suzuki Roshi established a monastery at Tassajara Hot Springs in 1967, drawn to the location's beauty, peace, and seclusion. Deep in the wilderness east of Big Sur, the center is connected to the outside world by a single unpaved road. The remoteness that makes it an oasis also makes it particularly vulnerable when disaster strikes. If fire entered the canyon, there would be no escape.
More than two thousand wildfires, all started by a single lightning storm, blazed across the state of California in June 2008. With resources stretched thin, firefighters advised residents at Tassajara to evacuate early. Most did. A small crew stayed behind, preparing to protect the monastery when the fire arrived.
But nothing could have prepared them for what came next. A treacherous shift in weather conditions prompted a final order to evacuate everyone, including all firefighters. As they caravanned up the road, five senior monks made the risky decision to turn back. Relying on their Zen training, they were able to remain in the moment and do the seemingly impossible-to greet the fire not as an enemy to defeat, but as a friend to guide.
Fire Monks pivots on the kind of moment some seek and some run from, when life and death hang in simultaneous view. Novices in fire but experts in readiness, the Tassajara monks summoned both intuition and wisdom to face crisis with startling clarity. The result is a profound lesson in the art of living.
The above taken from the Penguin page for Fire Monks
contact DC at <email@example.com>