Sweeping the Fire
—Zen students and neighbors come together as one body to protect Sonoma Mountain from firestorm.
Resident students at Sonoma Mountain Zen Center along with Sonoma Mountain Road neighbors stayed through the blaze that began on October 8th on surrounding hillsides and reached many properties on along Sonoma Mountain Road by October 11th. With one goal to keep the fire that was threatening their homes and land from spreading, students and neighbors worked day and night to respond to changing conditions as quickly as possible, often more quickly than fire personnel could. Communicating by voice, walkie talkies and cell phones, the neighbors alerted each other and formed “combat clean-up” teams using pickup trucks, tractors, chainsaws, shovels and water buckets to put out small fires before they became large ones. In small groups they patrolled the fire breaks day and night. Wind levels never rose to the high levels that were predicted, preventing what could have been a larger disaster.
The call came around midnight Sunday the 8th. FIRE!. Severe winds were raging. Looking out to the surrounding mountain ridges, there was a ring of separate fires forming all around us.
We were evacuated around 3 am, driving by flames on Pressley road on the way out to a members home in Petaluma. Later that day, resident zen students decided to return to do what was possible to do to protect the temple and property. After all, mountains are mountains and we were going to protect Ours.
We immediately purchased and set up a generator to maintain our water supply and then gathered up all the tools we had into the back of our dark blue Ford 4-wheel pickup truck. We got out the walkie talkies and put in new batteries. Important items from the temple were loaded into cars and dispatched to safe areas away from Santa Rosa. Koten and Angus managed to get through the road blocks and dodge the police to return to SMZC with an generator. Jundo, Dobek and Milla tried to return to SMZC but were denied by the police. They were evacuated to Sonoma then to Mendocino.
When the brunt of the fire hit on Wednesday the 11th we followed a call from our neighbors to help put it out down the street at Mountain Meadow Way. Together with them we did what we could, digging ditches like mad to help stop the fire from burning any structures. The fire spread fast up the hill moving through the backside of neighboring properties and eventually onto the back portion of our land. Then the fire was moving too quickly for us to control it with our limited crew and tools. A firemen that was present asked us how important were the small structures in the forested area which included the memorial to our teacher’s teacher, Suzuki Roshi. When we said ‘very important”, he replied “you will have to let it go, it won’t make it”. Grabbing what we could that could be moved, we had to get out quickly from the engulfing flames. To our surprise, the next day we found that the fire had STOPPED JUST BELOW the rock wall of Suzuki Roshi’s memorial. Starting on Tuesday, before the flames hit, firemen had begun bulldozing a firebreak across the steep slopes towards the back of our properties— it was this road and perhaps the presence of Suzuki Roshi, that saved the land uphill. Nyoze, Susan, Jason Nichols and Kristin skillfully maneuvered around the police barricades on Pressley road and Sonoma Mountain Road and returned to SMZC to fight the fire.
Although we made it through the initial blaze, the following days were frought with concern because of never ending predictions of the kind of high winds that had spread the fire so quickly on October 8th. What could we do?
Knowing that a small effort may have a large effect, we decided that preventing flames from spreading while they are small enough to put out was something a small team could accomplish. It was a no-brainer that close monitoring could alert the nearby fire responders in time to make a difference. Along with our like-minded neighbors we formed a single team that took our places going where we needed to go to monitor and stop small fires before they could become large. Pickup trucks carrying water, buckets, chainsaws, backhoes and tractors appeared, and our small crew worked diligently day and night.
10/12/2017 - 10/18/2017
Over the next week we were were there to respond when the call came to fight a blaze that started from dry leaves, one from a wood chip pile and another from a burning tree, on neighboring properties. We were able to chainsaw off burning parts of trees to separate them from their fuel source. We cut down and hauled away brush that was close and could ignite, dragged burning branches and whole trees into safe already-burned open areas and pored water on stubborn hot spots. In small teams, we monitored the fire line every several hours, day and night. Sadly, we also watched helplessly as the home at 168 Mountain Meadow Way burned to the ground in the matter of a few hours. If the wind had been as predicted, this single event could have spread fire much more widely. Everyday Shunryu would drive up from Mill Valley get pass the police roadblocks and deliver gasoline for our generator, batteries and supplies. Kashin, Roshi, Shinko and Ejo evacuated to Mill Valley and acted as the communication hub. They kept us on the mountain updated with daily information regarding fire location, weather and requesting Cal Fire to help us at SMZC.
At this time of need, all boundaries just dissolved. Mountains were no longer MountainS. There were no “property lines”. There was only One fire, One mountain and One mind working to put it OUT!
From our high vantage point we could only watch as the huge fires on Sugarloaf ridge near Kenwood and Oakmont burned and burned and seemed to creep closer down the hill towards highway 12. Around Saturday the 14th the the flames shot up what looked like more than 1000 feet into the air. Planes and helicopters flew over repeatedly with water. This fire definitely required a large effort to control it.
Fortunately for everyone, the high winds did not arise again.
On October 19th came a well-timed 1” of rain. PG&E came back on line and all the residents were able to return to the Zen Center. We immediately held a small ceremony at Suzuki Roshi’s stupa consisting of burning incense and bowing 9 times. Suzuki Roshi taught us that although normally students bow three times, we should bow 9 times in gratitude for having Buddha appear.
Although now Mountains are MountainS again, property lines returned, there is a subtle difference. We know what is possible. We are ever grateful to the “one mountain” that included huge numbers of responders from all over the country, and especially to the “cat skinner Bodhisattva” who bulldozed the firebreak across the steep land. We will maintain these roads and fire breaks knowing how precious they are. And we know that a small group of like-minded people working together with great spirit can have a large effect.
- Article written by Susan Gesshin Frey
October 24th, 2017 Sonoma Mountain Zen Center