March 24, 2012

Fire Monks: Five against a Wildfire

The warm months of 2008 exhausted California's wildland firefighters with a series of big fires. Inland from Big Sur, the Basin Complex fire burned 162,818 acres between late June and late July.

In a steep valley surrounded by fire stood the Tassajara Zen Mountain Center, built at the site of a former hot springs resort hotel.

The Zen Center had survived fires in the late 1970s and 1990s. The monks were not unprepared. They had a fire cache with tools and protective clothing. They had built a sprinkler system out of PVC pipe to protect the main buildings of the monastery complex, fed by pumps from a creek that still flowed And as the 2008 fire moved closer, they got some short-term help from two hand crews who built fire lines and did other mitigation.

Cover of Fire Monks by Colleen Morton Busch
But was it enough?

As the fire closed in on Tassajara, guests and some staff were evacuated, leaving a crew of twenty to defend the monastery.

Finally the word came from the US Forest Service that the one dirt road into Tassajara was close to being overrun by the advancing flames.

Their on-scene adviser, a Cal Fire captain, told them to evacuate—which they did.

But at the last roadblock—the point of no return—five senior staff, four men and one woman, turned around and returned to the monastery grounds to "greet the flames."

They were the fire monks. And, soon enough, the fire would greet them.
The summer's elusive guest had finally arrived. They'd been waiting for this moment for almost three weeks, imagining scenarios, educating themselves, guessing which direction it would come from. But they'd never imagined there would be only five of them to meet it. And they hadn't imagined it would arrive on three sides simultaneously, plowing downhill as if trying to make up for lost time. . . .

There wasn't a moment where they all stood together as they had in the emergency meeting . . . or huddled on the road, [at the roadblock] to collectively make a decision. Yet they had to make a decision, to either bunker in their safe zone as the fire passed through the valley or make a stand to try to defend Tassaja. Here was another pivotal moment, from which so many possible outcomes could spin, the kind of moment that might be held up to the light afterward. . . . .

The five Zen priests at Tassajara weren't in the habit of dividing choices into right or wrong, good or bad. They'd practiced seeing everything that happens as a part of a continuous and always completely unified stream of events. Each moment flowing like the creek, from what came before into what comes next, all of time moving together . . . .

In Zen, you can't really make a "wrong" decision. But you can't make a "right" decision, either. You can only respond moment to moment in a way that feels the least harmful and deluded, the most compassionate and true.
Writer Collen Morton Busch, a Zen practitioner herself, was not present for the fire, but stitches together a compelling, page-turning narrative.

In her writing, she frequently references Sitting with Fire, a blog kept by the evacuees—here is a sample entry from the height of the emergency.

Mike Morales' Firefighter Blog, which is still published, also covered the struggle for Tassajara, but he was wrong about one thing: the cavalry (engine crews, air tankers) never did come riding to the rescue.

In this video, Busch discusses her book, Fire Monks: Zen Mind Meets Wildfire at the Gates of Tassajara. The San Francisco Zen Center, Tassajara's parent organization, also remembers the fire on this web page.

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