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Tuesday, July 01, 2008

Esalen in the line of fire

The Esalen Institute is a difficult thing to explain: idyll in the wilderness around Big Sur, California; farm where seekers look for meaning through hard work; influential driver of innovation in psychotherapy, massage, and all things new age. Click on the image below and you can see it, stretched along the water between California's Highway 1 and the Pacific:
To the east is the great Ventana Wilderness, full of redwoods and pine and unmapped hot springs streams. Zoom out a little and you can start to see how vast it is, and how tiny Esalen and the other Big Sur settlements are in comparison:
Right now, that wilderness is on fire. The fire is moving towards Esalen. And my father, one of the people who helps run the place, has no plans to leave.

Over the past few days he's sent out updates; they're not quite public, but I hope he won't mind my sharing excerpts here. I need to, out of worry.

Not that I should be worried. There's a rich tradition of the Esalen community rallying to keep forest fires at bay; when the "big one", a fire in 1985 that destroyed tens of thousands of acres, came right down to the highway, close enough for a few stray embers to fly across and catch on Esalen property, Esalen folks formed bucket brigades and cleared brush like mad, and outlasted the fire in an epic slugfest. (They'd had practice during the 1977 Marble Cone fire in Big Sur.)

What I love most about my father's dispatches is that in this crisis, like in those before, the Esalen spirit -- enormous concern for people's balance and well-being, repeating your guiding values to make sure that you are following them, the wellspring of acupuncture for firemen -- comes through so clearly:

Friday, June 27
We are in no immediate danger here, for say the next 48 hours, while the fire works its way slowly, under these conditions, westward down the canyons toward the coast. A change in winds can of course change this at any time.
Western fire defense perimeter is Highway One itself. In the very best outcome, the marine cover remains in place for some days, moistening the canyons at low altitudes, the two fires meet and extinguish along the southern boundary.
Meanwhile, Esalen is located exactly between the two advancing firelines...

The best map I could find; Esalen is located right above the Highway 1 sign. As of this writing, the Basin Complex Fire is moving south; the Indians Fire is moving west. If the map is accurate, it puts the Indians Fire at about 10 miles wide.

Our Esalen team of designated firefighters will work with and in support of [the] primary professional force. Our primary team consists of a crew of 19 training now to work together in defense of South Coast [Esalen cabins] and/or our first Esalen vulnerable sites.
Our priorities continue to be: 1) safety of people first; 2) protecting the Esalen property wherever possible without compromising #1; and 3) ongoing management.

Currently about 95 staff and others are choosing to remain on property, both to defend the campus itself when and if the fire does come down to the coast here, and also to support our primary team of firefighters... everyone currently still here is choosing to be here. Anyone with respiratory distress or any respiratory/circulatory disease is being specifically asked to leave now...

Spirits are tense but high here, with everyone stepping up, student massage practitioners offering free sessions under the coordination of displaced refugees [names omitted] -- today [name omitted] made it down from Coastlands to show support at our daily community meeting and also to offer free acupuncture to those suffering from respiratory or other stress.
We continue to provide refuge for about 8 neighbors who have been evacuated from their houses...

Thanks to all for all your messages and good wishes. With gratefulness and with prayers for all those suffering loss or danger - Gordon

Saturday, June 28
Last night around nine fire was sighted in many places coming over the [nearby ridge], moving in a transverse line slowly down the hill toward South Coast [Esalen cabins]...

Meanwhile we could see the truth of what Division Chief Brian Savage had told us yesterday morning -- that the fog blanket would stop the advance of the flames, or at least slow it drastically. [Two Big Sur residents] told me early this morning that they had watched the flames die to an invisible smolder as the moist blanket rolled back up. The fire is still there of course, and once the day warms up and the fog lifts (as it looks like it will in a few hours), the flames will resume advancing down the hill, in both Burns Creek and Hot Springs Canyon.

Everything now depends on the weather...

Spirits are good, [Esalen CEO] Harry plans to encourage all, especially the first responder team, to take as much time off today as possible, to be rested and ready to go tonight or more likely tomorrow.

Sunday, June 29:
With clearing skies this afternoon we can see smoke coming over the ridge in Hot Springs Canyon, as well as plumes of smoke on this side of the top of the canyon -- still quite high up.

At some 35,000 acres and growing, the fire has at last been declared a Federal Emergency, triggering more federal resources and FEMA funds. Over 1000 firefighters are now in the area, with more than 50 big rigs, countless other vehicles, and now some air support.

To the south, word today is that the Fire Service has abandoned their firebreak at Dolan Canyon as either unsustainable or already breached (we're not certain which)...

Esalen continues to be on "pre-evacuation alert." If mandatory evacuation is ordered, there are some 60 of us who are committed to stay here no matter what, either to fight the fire or to support the teams who do. Air masks presumably arrive tomorrow.

Spirits continue to be high and determined here on the campus. Young people not having changed in the past 40 years that I know of, the main complaint I hear out of management is that some people do not seem to be necessarily sleeping in their newly assigned rooms, but are rather elsewhere and thus not easily accountable in a nighttime emergency.... [A staff member] promises a veil of absolute confidentiality if people will divulge to her where they are actually overnighting, in case of an all-property alert during the night. Meantime, we trust in the deafening alarm signal we have here on double electrical backup... Two blasts for first responders; three for everyone on property to go to the oval for instructions.

Today a team of our clearing crew was scheduled to be up on the Hudson Ranch foaming houses there (again, it's not something we can do here ahead of time, as the foam has a limited effective life once it's sprayed on -- so they're learning the process up there, while helping neighbors at the same time)…

Enough for now! appreciation and regards to all, and endless kudos to the dedicated core team remaining here on property. - Gordon

That is the last I have heard from him. My sister called just now, a little after midnight, to say that the authorities have ordered mandatory evacuation of Esalen and other nearby areas, and that he has decided to stay. It's especially alarming because at the time of his last email he didn't seem to think an evac was likely, so I wonder what changed and how much worse the outlook has gotten.

Dad, I wish I were there with you. Everyone at Esalen, stay safe, and keep being ridiculously supportive of those around you while you fight the fire! Or rather, as my father would emphasize, in order to fight the fire. (My sister would add: but don't be supportive of the fire. At least not now. Admire its primal wisdom later.)

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Blogger Ben on Thu Jul 03, 12:42:00 AM:
Update of Tuesday, July 1:

Yesterday evening we were visited by the Sheriff, bringing the notice of mandatory evacuation for everyone... What that really means is that after 5 pm today, no more cars will be allowed in or out of the sealed, evacuated sector.
This leaves a core group of our 19 designated, trained First Responder Teams, plus several backups -- along with about an equal number of the rest of our core group who are in service and support to that team, to the property here, and to the professional firefighting unit we have staying up at South Coast [Esalen cabins], and taking their meals here with us...

At the Sheriff's instruction, each of us staying on property is required to sign a form for the Sheriff's records, indicating that we have been informed that the area is sealed, and are voluntarily declining the evacuation order.

...Yesterday [we] were joined by a dozen young men from the CDC (Correctional Facilities) -- guys serving sentence-release or community service time for low-level convictions. Not as skilled and effective as our Esalen team or the professional firefighters (who clear brush in their down time) -- but a willing crew with a good spirit.

John Murphy and I had a good chat with their team captain up at the tanks, a solid middle-aged guy in a fire service uniform, with a straight-ahead attitude. We asked him how it was, supervising a CDC crew. "Never a dull moment," was his answer. "Basically good guys, some have never held a job or showed up for work before. Every five minutes somebody needs a hug, a bandaid, or a disciplinary action." John and I agreed it sounded like any regular group of young adult males to us...

All the crews tell us it's one world down here under the marine layer, and another world entirely up above 1500 or so feet. Hot, dry, windier, with fire active and on the move, while down here it continues just to send fingers down the canyons, here and there suddenly igniting and rushing back up the hill, only to probe slowly down again. (You learn a lot of things in the course of this -- one of them being the axiom that absent a tailwind, fire creeps downhill, rushes uphill. This is because on an uphill slope, as heat from the flames rises, the firefront is preheating its fuel as it goes).
Current strategy: contain it with dozer firebreaks in the North, up near Pico Blanco at the top of Palo Colorado Canyon; join it to the (mostly burned over) Indians Fire of a couple of weeks ago to the East and Southeast; hold it if possible at the Dolan Ridge backfire to the South, and stop the fire at Highway One up and down the coast to the West. But to get it out of the hills, it first has to be allowed to burn down to Highway One, defending and sparing as many structures as possible that lie on the east side of the highway. That's what we're waiting for now.

As we wait, every night our 22 guest firefighters drag into dinner from the day in the brush, and the dining room erupts in cheers and applause. Matt and his kitchen crew are plainly outdoing themselves because these amazing guys are here (last night spareribs and chocolate mousse), and everybody cheers again when they drag off early to bed. Yesterday morning they told us when they came in that evening they would be wanting a group photo of themselves and the whole community here, out on the oval in front of their trucks. They say they're simply overwhelmed by the warmth and reception here, and we're hearing similar stories up and down the Big Sur coast. You know what the saying is around here -- Big Sur is not just a place, it's a state of mind. A lot of crusty individuals, according to tradition here -- but when they do take you in, they take you in deep.

(My own feeling is more like what, these amazing guys don't normally get appreciated when they come in to save folks' homes?? It's actually sort of sobering, how sincerely surprised and moved they seem to be, by the simple gesture of giving them a real bed to sleep in, showers and dinner and breakfast, and a supply of quarters recycled out of the laundry machines, for washing the poison oak off their things).

In the wider community, with no other guests here, Esalen's bounteous gardens have excess produce these days, which we're selling locally where we can, while distributing most of it to shelters and firefighters that are set up down south of here. Each day Esalen's Rachel Fann (mother of Jason and Robin, grandmother of several of our youngest community members), who is volunteering as a chef in a shelter to the south, stops by and fills her trunk with fresh vegetables for soup for lunch. It's a harrowing time, for many more than for us so far -- and a warm time too, as neighbors take care of neighbors, and often help each other keep up their spirits and prep and save their homes.
A wrench for many of our Esalen community is saying goodbye today to their friends and family (or near-family) here and heading on up the hill toward town, in advance of the sealing of the road at 5:00. We're emphasizing that for everyone, it's not a matter of staying and serving Esalen, or leaving that service... No one serves by putting their own health at risk; in case of any physical distress, or just because you're not essential right now on property, then you serve best by taking care of your own health and energy, so as to come back fresh next week (or the next), when we'll need all our friends and family with fresh energy, more than ever.

To all our friends out there, thanks for your wellwishes and support. We'll be in touch -- regards to all, and prayers for the safety and care of all in distress or danger.