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The Tassajara Forest Fire (1999

Go to Tassajara Fire page for posts on earlier and later fires at or near Tassajara.

MIRA on 1999 Fire (Monterey Inst. of Research and Astronomy

9/29/99-Bill Redican has provided more news on the fires around Tassajara.

In recent weeks, two sets of fires have erupted in the Big Sur area:  "Kirk Complex North" (the Tassajara, Mountain, and Snake fires) and "Kirk Complex South."  Until recently, the main threat to Zen Mountain Center has been the Tassajara fire, which was declared to be less dangerous to ZMC after the
recent rain and backfirings.

We received a call from Vicki Austin this morning (9/29) from Tassajara.  The Forestry Service has alerted them to an increased intensity of the Kirk South fire.  It may spread north, so two fire crews have been re-dispatched to ZMC.  There is a possibility that ZMC may have to be evacuated.  At present, the fire is two canyons away from ZMC, but there is no backfired zone between the fire and ZMC, and the weather continues to be hot and dry.

Bill Redican 

9/25/99-Here is an update from Kokai

Dear David,
There was an evacuation at Tassajara; I was there. We were told by the Forest Service that we needed to leave within 30
minutes. It was about 12:30 p.m. The sky had been very orange and the sun was a big orange ball which cast reflected red shadows, it was quite strange. The air temperature kept getting hotter and hotter, so it truly felt as if something new was happening. The two days before we had been experiencing soot falling from the sky in the afternoon when the wind changed. The surrounding hills were without detail and it was grey in the distance.

Anyway, we were all about half way through lunch when we heard the densho bell being rung. Everyone pretty much guessed what was up. We met in the courtyard and Leslie told us that we had been asked to evacuate within the next half hour and that twenty people could stay at Tassajara. The people who wanted to stay met by the coffee tea area. Most of those people were residents, although a few non-residents stayed. Everyone else left.

The whole scene was calm, but my heart was racing as I packed my personal belongings and the items we'd brought for Dharma Transmission. (I was there to help with Vicki and Michael's Dharma Transmission.) Blanche packed most of the stuff in the calligraphy room and I got the rest. We had antique kesas hanging on the wall and I took them down and stuffed them into a box. You could hear carts rumbling up and down the path as people headed back and forth between their cabins and the driveway by the zendo. The heat keep rising. It felt tense.

People were amazingly calm. Leslie stood by the zendo with a list of people and cars and directed everyone. I waited and
talked with a woman I hadn't seen for several years, while we folded up the kesas, I'd stuffed into the box earlier. At the last minute Vicki and I ran back to the Kaisando and grabbed the ceremonial chair and red curtains and stuffed them into the pack of an empty pick up truck.

I think the total evacuation took about 45 minutes to an hour. As I recall, we left at 1:30. Leslie and I were out in the last car. As we drove out, you could see a line of over 20 fire fighting vehicles lined up from the parking lot up the road. There were two giant metal vans with tiny windows filled with prisoners, who were looking out the window. They all seemed to be wearing orange jumpsuits and orange headscarves. Men stood by their trucks and waited for us to leave before they moved into Tassajara. It felt pretty dramatic.

As we got up the road, there were cars from Tassajara stopped at all the vista points and people stood and watched the fires coming over a ridge in the distance. You could see it crest the top and then catch on the other side. One young guy was sitting on the hillside playing a didgeridoo. But mostly we were all standing around commenting on the fire. One by one we drove off. As we drove toward J'burg, Leslie and I continued to see the fire in the distance for quite awhile. We speculated on where it was and if it would cross the road or reach Tassajara. I'm sure this was what was on everyone's mind.

We all ended up at Jamesburg and finally after about an hour it died down and people made their way back to the Bay Area.
On the way out I was interested in a helicoper station that had been setup were the Tassajara road mets the Carmel Valley Road. There were 3 or 4 giant helicopters that looked like dragonflies, either landing or waiting to take off in a horse rancher's field. One landed while we watched. It had a long tube dangling from its tank, which was attached between its legs. There were turbo jet looking engines on the top
above the cockpit and below the propellers. It seemed as if these alien giant insects were poised, waiting for orders to take off again. We watched for awhile, I took a few pictures and then we headed off for San Francisco.

So that's my first hand account of the evacuation of Tassajara. It did happen. It's true there were not backfires set. Hope
you are well and thanks for keeping a running commentary on some of the events that are of interest to the community.
Take care, Kokai

9/24/99-Hopefully, this is the final bulletin on the fire near Tassajara.  Looks like everything's going to be fine.

As a result of the recent rain, the eastern edge of the fire nearest to Tassajara has been extinguished (or at least subdued).  The main fire is not out, but the rain created a sort of natural back-fire along the fire's eastern edge.  Tassajara is now considered to be in far less danger, and students are beginning to return--depending on the state of the road.

Several of the firefighters were given zazen instruction and left with copies of Zen Mind, Beginner's Mind.  The fire crew consisted in part of inmates from California prisons.  All very much appreciated Tassajara cooking, although one of the firefighters did mention he found himself thinking of a nice pork chop from time to time, and one of the fire crew referred to tofu
as "white Spam."

Zen Center is profoundly in debt to all those who helped contain this fire and preserve the precious treasure of Tassajara Zen Mountain Center.  Nine bows to all. --Bill Redican

9/23/99--An update from Bill Redican on the Tassajara fire:

It rained for a few minutes at Tassajara the other night.  This plus the lack of advance by the fire along its western border led authorities to declare that the danger to Zen Mountain Center has considerably lessened.  They withdrew the fire crew that has been there and replaced it with a crew of ten.  Watchful waiting is still in order, because the fire is still "out of control," it has reached to within 1 or 1.5 miles of ZMC, and a change in
wind could cause new problems.  For now, the mood is optimistic.  Reports on the news that ZMC had been evacuated and backfired were incorrect. --Bill Redican

9/22/99--Go to Kirk Fire Complex for daily updated info on the Tassajara Fire. It doesn't look too threatening right now, but last night on local CBS news I heard that the fire was only a mile from Tassajara. While I'm in Germany, Bill Redican will send Jamie any important updates in Houston and he'll post them. But if it just continues to lessen in danger, nothing more will appear.--DC

9/18/99--I spoke to some folks at Jamesburg this morning and it seems no one is very worried about the fire now. It has reached the road at Church Creek but the winds are low and they think it may not reach Tassajara. Of course that could all change with a change in conditions, especially wind. The Tassajara road is still closed but people are talking about going back in on Monday. There is a new report on the Kirk Complex Fire page and lots of new pictures and the map close-up is different. This fire is named the Tassajara Fire by the Forest Service. There's another fire nearby at Elephant Mt. they're calling the Mountain Fire.--DC 

9/17/99--5:00 PM--from Bill Redican: Here's a better site to access the US Forest Service updates: Kirk Complex Fire Information. It's the index site. You can get to photos of the fire (!) and even topo maps showing the advance of the fire.

9/17/99--1:00 PM--More links to firefighting websites from Diane Renshaw.

12:00 PM--Tassajara Fire report from Bill Redican at SFZC: Here's a great website with the latest bulletins from the US Forest Service. It was started by lightning on 9/8/99 at 9 pm. As of 6:07 am this morning, the fire has consumed 15,200 acres. The predicted wind speed for today is only 5 mph from the east. Go to Kirk Fire Complex

From that US Forest Service web site:

31. Remarks:
The Five/Tassajara Fire continued to spread to the northeast and south. Indirect line construction and preparation for a large burnout continues. Approval was given by the Regional Forester for limited line construction within the Ventana Wilderness using mechanical equipment. These lines follow old lines used during the Marble-Cone Fire in 1977. This is necessary for the protection of life and property adjacent to the wilderness. The precautionary evacuation of Tassajara Hot Springs continues. Other trigger points for evacuation have been established around the incident. Due to the threat of the fire spreading off of the National Forest DPA, unified command has been established with the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, George Haines IC. 

10:00am--Tassajara Fire report from Bill Redican at SFZC: As of this morning, the latest info we have on the Tassajara fire is that it has not moved appreciably since yesterday. The Forest Service continues to cut fire-breaks. They have not back-fired the immediate area. We are keeping in contact via Keith Meyerhoff's cell phone.

9/16/99--11AM: Update on Tassajara fire from Keith at Jamesburg (the tiny berg at the end of the paved road where the 15 mile dirt road to Tassajara begins). There are four fires out of control. One is about two miles up-creek. Smoke to West but can't see any flames. It's not a matter of if but when to back burn--probably today. They're sure they'll loose phone contact with Tassajara today. Road is closed. As far as when students can return and the practice period can start, all is on hold.

10AM: Update on the forest fire near Tassajara Springs, Zen Mountain Center, from Bill Redican at the SFZC.

As of this morning, the fire has slowed down but it is still not controlled. There are 85 firefighters and approximately 25 Tassajara students onsite. They haven't started a backfire yet: They will wait until the fire gets quite close (about 60 feet!) before starting it. In the meantime, they are cutting fire-breaks through the forest with bulldozers to defend the populated areas. Sprinklers have been installed above the propane tank, the solar collectors (to keep the phones working), and one or more wood-shingled buildings to quench sparks. The windows of the zendo have been covered with plywood. If the fire reaches the nearest ridge, they will spray fire-retardant foam over the buildings, which is said to protect for two hours. The Forest Service seemed hopeful of saving the buildings even if the fire reaches the site.

9/15/99--3:00--I just got a call from Bill Redican, ZC archivist, telling me that right now that in the Los Padres National Forest near Carmel Valley and Big Sur CA, there is a forest fire headed for Tassajara and everyone is being evacuated. More info when I get it.

4:00--Just talked to Terry in the office at the SFZC. He told me that people at Tassajara were given 45 minutes to evacuate. There were a number of personal cars there so they grabbed a few things, piled in and drive off.  About 12 Zen students who were trained firefighters were allowed to stay to fight the fire with about 80 firefighters brought in by the US Forest Service. A backfire was started to burn in the direction the fire was coming from. There were firefighters elsewhere such as at Church Creek Ranch. Tassajara folks were told they could probably return on Monday.

I was there for the first forest fire which happened about twenty years ago and have been in charge of firefighting there and on the crew for years. I've talked to forest rangers about the fire danger there as well. They usually said that the greatest danger is a fire we start ourselves. I remember one saying about the zendo that burned down about twenty years ago, "It's not if it will burn down, but when." The danger from forest fires there is real, but it's not like being in a pine forest where the fire crowns and roars through sucking up the oxygen and destroying everything in its path. At Tassajara,  deep in a valley, surrounded by Oak, Manzanita, scrub brush, and sycamores and alders in the creek, the fire would tend to creep up. And especially with a back burn, I am confidant that they will successfully defend dear Tassajara! --DC

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