cuke.com


Tassajara Stories

Index

previous --------------- next


Fire
last edit 9-25

 

When Shunryu Suzuki arrived at Tassajara, he'd go straight 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, still holding it, he turned to me and said, "Many temples in Japan have burned down from one stick of incense."

Fred Nason had a reputation as being a wise elder. Like Bill Lambert, he grew up in those parts, knew the forest well, took groups on horseback into the wilderness. His father had sold Church Creek Ranch in 1920 to Bill's father who sold it back to the Church family who'd owned it from 1884 to 1907. Fred married Bill's daughter Roseann Marie in 1951. She'd passed in 2005. Fred told me, “My dad bought two ranches from booze. My mom taught him how.”

Fred said, “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 a few miles from Jamesburg on a back road to Carmel Valley. The Indians is a section of the forest south of Big Sur near the coast. I'd never heard of Halleck Canyon but it's obviously an old name for the narrow Tassajara valley or somewhere near there.

Seems Fred forgot the Buckeye Fire which burned 45,000 acres and got to Willow Creek just over the Tony Trail in September of 1970. I was living at Tassajara then and remember all the smoke in the air. It burned a bunch of miners' shacks but also a lot of vegetation which uncovered others the history buffs didn't know about.

And before Fred's time, In 1902 Andrew Church's beautiful hand built Caves (as it was called then) ranch house burned down. His family had to ride horses out over the trails in their nightclothes, his wife clutching her two week old baby.

In 1903 a fire started in the Chew's Ridge area and raged for three months burning an area "a township wide (6 miles)" and spread for 15 miles to the coast where it widened. People in the Carmel area complained that the air was filled with smoke. Andrew Church's new home was threatened but escaped destruction.

 

There was the well known Tassajara hotel fire on September 9, 1949. There was a two story sandstone hotel, where the zendo and upper garden is now. The fire went on to burn ten of twenty cottages, a shop, and a recreation building. Then it spread up canyon where it was engaged by three hundred firefighters. Forty guests and twenty-two employees were stranded there. Helicopters were on alert to evacuate but it wasn't necessary. Two people were treated for burns The fire was contained in a day. Joan Crawford’s ex-husband, actor Phillip Terry, was the owner then. He was there and some suspected him of arson. The remaining building stones were bulldozed into the basement by Bill Lambert. When we first made a garden there back in '67, I remember us digging up one big sandstone block after another. They were used for the deep and wide foundation for the stone walled kitchen we built.

Anna Beck who owned Tassajara with her late husband Bob from '60 through '66 says she knows of no other fires in that area 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. We also had some worrisome incidents.

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 stovepipe turned red hot. The red hotness started traveling up the stovepipe 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 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 as a fire prevention measure. This flammable material was stored in an area surrounded by trees– straight ahead in the Flats. 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 oaks, catching some of them on fire which was quickly and barely put out. Students, including David Silva, experienced in forest firefighting, manning hoses from the floating pump barely kept it from spreading. It was reported by Jed Linde who was taking a walk after evening zazen. Students put water on it all night. Dianne Goldschlag stuck with it till a fire truck arrived from Carmel Valley in the morning after it was completely out. 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 bright idea as Tassajara work leader.

In 1975 when I was Tassajara director, I took all the old electrical wire we'd collected for years and put it in a 55 gallon drum in the middle of a space out at Grasshopper Flats where we'd have an occasional bon fire. I poured gasoline on it to get a fire going to burn away the covering before sending the copper in to be sold because it's worth more that way. It practically exploded with high flame and an enormous amount of smoke shot way way up. I ran to the office to call the Forest Service right away to let them know there was no forest fire. 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 looked around and said, “It’s not if you’re going to have a fire here, it’s when.”

During that time there was a fire up by the wind caves off the trail on the way to Church Creek Ranch. Tuttle up at the lookout say the first wisps that rose, firefighters got to it right away and snuffed it out. A careless illegal camper they said. Bob Walter who, due to what I saw as his non conformity, had been denied a request to return to Tassajara and had been camping up there. He was immediately blamed. But due to blood in his urine he'd left before that and seen Dr. Wenner who said he had an inflamed prostate. He said all he'd left behind was some toilet paper for the next illegal camper.

In 1977 the town trip truck got an engine fire and some shop rags caught fire. Then biggie came in August, 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, spread out on the floor of the rooms and the few out buildings. Tassajara had been completely evacuated. I remember visiting neighbor Danny Werner in Cachagua. He made his hot tub available to the Tassajara evacuees.

I went in to Tassajara with a group at night to do some preparation such as getting sprinklers on roofs. On the way in we stopped to look out over the ridges at the distant approaching fire. Beautiful. A pickup truck was there as well. Some people in our group were suspicious of them. I walked over to it and said hello. Forest Service truck. 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, knowing this attempt to get them hooked to us would work better if relating to them included someone else, introduced Ed Brown suggesting that he show them around. Urged them to meet Richard Baker 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 into contact with us when I was director and he was governor elect. He did some work in the kitchen, grinding some nuts in a hand mill. He said, "You know this thing will only go so fast. You know why?"

"No, why we asked."

"Because it's got a governor on it," he said.

I would have corrected him pointing out that actually it had a governor elect on it, but that would not have been appropriate.

Baker and he became close friends right away. I’d helped to get the 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. The relationship was mutually beneficial. I went 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 Patchell, to Texas, and I didn’t feel like they needed more bodies. Ted Marshall was there and he'd fought forest fires with the Forest Service. Like the five fire monks in 2008, some students went back in with the abbot Richard Baker. Baker lit the first backfire and Forest Service crew chief Bob Crew (namephreak) lit the 2nd. The fire did arrive there slowly and Tassajara was prepared.

During this fire period, at one point the road was closed, too much fire to pass, so Baker and a group of students headed out walking to Jamesburg. At one point Baker said he had a bad feeling and they should all turn around right away and go back. Leland Smithson wanted to keep going but Baker insisted. Immediately after they left that area, an airplane carrying out a backburn swooped in and bombed it with something Baker thought might be napalm that made the hillside where they'd just been erupt in flame.

In April of 1978 there was the devastating Tassajara zendo fire which also took the library, office, and food storage area. It started in the middle of a shosan, question and answer, ceremony in the zendo. During one of the early questions to the abbot Richard Baker, someone called out, "There seems to be a fire back here!" A few seconds later that fire was visible coming up the stairs through the open doorway. 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. There was no time to get the big irreplaceable mokugyo (wooden drum) that had been a gift from Eiheiji monastery in Japan, or the standing taiko drum, or the wonderful big brass bowl bell, stone Buddha statue, and many more items.

A late night shopping trip went to an all night market. The next morning the shosan ceremony was completed as well as the closing ceremony for the practice period.

Poor Tassajara had been 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 in Catch 22 becoming a major in the army upon enlisting). Ted said he immediately ran to get a fire extinguisher and was poised over the flame when he was told by the abbot to drop it and get the fire crew together. He said he regrets having followed that order because he’s convinced he could have put it out. Alan and others say that they don’t believe he could have put it out.

Alan was the person in choki (sitting up kneeling) getting ready to ask the next question in the ceremony when the fire was reported and he says that he had the fire hose pointed at it with Ginny Baker assisting but that no water came out. The pipes had been washed out in the winter’s heavy flow of water following the Marble Cone Fire, the fire hose was running through the trees, and there was no pressure. Finally the floating pump was running and used to save the kitchen along with help from a few on the roof cutting away burning shingles, a bucket brigade from the creek, and a fire wall the county had made us put in a decade earlier.

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 with the abbot that she claims turned into a fist fight, something he denies and that no one else remembers and that I can't imagine.

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 few days later was driving a logging truck. Marc Alexander who was working on a standpipe system that wasn’t finished yet says he was blamed. Alan says the work leader and assistant fire marshal Jay Simoneaux felt it was his fault. Marc remembers apologizing to abbot Richard Baker the next day and being told it wasn’t his fault and Baker said he knew who had done it. Baker has no idea about that now. Everyone seems to have been quite emotional at the time but not so later. No one blames anyone now or says they know for sure what happened.

I remember after the fire I was asked if I knew anyone who might be able to restore the Gandhara buddha from the zendo which had been smashed into pieces. I called Tassajara guest and former NY MOMA curator Lanier Graham who suggested someone from the de Young Museum in SF. Whenever I see that old stone statue from Afghanistan, I marvel at what an excellent restoration job. Can't tell it was ever broken into pieces.

 

There was a candle making operation causing a fire in the early eighties. They said there had been a small fire out at grasshopper flats in the winter that was related to an ashes spreading ceremony someone was doing.

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.

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 Gaelyn Godwin 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 Forest Service 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 a Forest Service person said that there was evidence that the camper had been there too. I think he was arrested.

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 at Tassajara at the time, staying in the hill cabins, and heard about all this after breakfast. It was 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 came in 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 reiterated what I've often heard - 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 get full of ladder material, the brush and low and fallen branches that fire climbs to get to the top of trees, kindling that keeps growing and waiting for the next opportunity to burn.

Of course each forest fire took care of a lot of that ladder material. The next opportunity to do so came in July, 2008, the Big Basin Fire, started by lightning. The story of the five Tassajara priests who refused to be evacuated and who saved Tassajara from incineration has been well recorded in Colleen Busch's Fire Monks.

I remember that the overwhelming impression I had upon going to Tassajara after that 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 and not what wasn’t. I marveled at how much was green, 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 that had been overgrown with chaparral. Of course much was burned, especially as one got up higher – but I thought the mountains needed it. I trusted it would come back strong. There was a good deal of impact on the terrain up top by fire fighting vehicles and equipment as well but I knew the land would heal before long. I remember the ankle deep ash walking up and down creek, 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.

 

There have been other fires in Los Padres since then, one in 2013 and another in 2015, neither of which got near Tassajara. There's one that's been burning for over a couple of months now as I write. It's been approaching Tassajara from Big Sur. The last six weeks of guest season had to be canceled. Tassajara now has 25 trained firefighter students and they're well prepared and waiting. There will surely be more fires in the area since the weather there is getting hotter and drier. California has seen a marked increase in forest fires in recent years.

Back in the early sixties, Suzuki gave Grahame Petchey a calligraphy that translates, "Be careful with fire." 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 guess so. Unlikely it would fall over, but still - . I wonder if they do that now.

When we do something we should do it with our whole body and mind. You should be concentrated on what you do and when you do something you should do it completely –like a good bonfire. It should not be smoky. You should burn yourself completely. You should not be smoky fire. That is one thing. If you do not burn yourself completely you will have trace of yourself in what you did. It means you do not change it into ashes completely. You have something remaining without completely burned down or burned out. That is so-called ‘Zen activity’. This is the goal of our practice. That is what it means by ‘ash does not come back to firewood’. Ash is ash. Ash should be completely ash. The firewood should be firewood. If this kind of activity takes place, one activity covers everything. This is the goal of our practice. - Shunryu Suzuki – June 23, 1966 [verbatim]


previous --------------- next