Ajahn Jotipālo has kindly offered the following journal of events chronicling Abhayagiri’s experience with the Redwood Complex fire.
Monday, October 9th
According to Cal Fire, a major wildfire started in Redwood Valley late on Sunday night. Fortunately, at 2AM, a community member woke up and noticed that the southern sky was pulsating red. He quickly started alerting other community members. As people left their cabins, flames were coming up over the ridge to the south. These were the initial fires that burned through the East Road–West Road junction area in Redwood Valley, about 2 miles south of the monastery.
The Abhayagiri community gathered at the main cloister area down the hill and organized an evacuation. A neighbor informed us that Tomki Road heading south was blocked due to flames and downed power lines, so the community decided to evacuate by driving north to Willits using a dirt road. Along the way, several cars had to be abandoned due to rough road conditions. Generous neighbors in trucks allowed the stranded community members to board their vehicles and be safely ferried to Willits.
The community gathered at the Willits City Hall which was made available for fire evacuees before moving to a Red Cross shelter at Willits High School. Everyone was impressed with the volunteers’ quick response and kindness. They provided meals and supplies and even opened a separate building for the monks to use.
We met with many evacuees from the area including neighbors whose property was devastated by the fires. Father Damian from Holy Transfiguration Monastery (next door to Abhayagiri) later told us that, by noon on Monday, they were able to drive south on Tomki Road. He said the properties starting about two miles south of the monastery were completely devastated. He also said he couldn’t tell where he was at many points as the landscape had changed so drastically.
At the time, the town of Willits was without phone and Internet service making communication very difficult. Eventually, a monk traveled to Laytonville, 23 miles north of Willits, where he was able to get internet service. He was able to reach Luang Por Pasanno who was in New Hampshire at the time. Luang Por, who had been reading the news and receiving information from people all over the world, had much better information about the fire than the stranded community.
With little communication with the outside world and thick layers of smoke descending on Willits, the group decided to spend the night in Fort Bragg. Mettika from the Three Jewels Meditation Center in Fort Bragg had generously offered to house the twenty-six evacuees for the evening.
Tuesday, October 10th
On Tuesday morning, the group still had almost no information about whether or not fires had affected the property. They knew, however, that the fire was zero percent contained and continued to affect large swaths of Redwood Valley and Potter Valley.
The group decided to accept the invitation from Dharma Master Heng Lyu to stay at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas (CTTB) in Ukiah. The community arrived at CTTB mid-afternoon, were warmly welcomed by Venerable Jin Chuan, and provided with rooms and amenities.
That evening, Father Damian reported that their community was safe and was staying in Ukiah. He also reported that a neighbor informed him that as of 5PM on Tuesday that Abhayagiri was not on fire but that fires could be seen behind the ridge line of the property.
Wednesday, October 11th
The next day the group rested.
Debbie and Beth attended a news briefing with county officials and reported back to the community.
Officials said the fires started because the humidity levels had been the lowest they have ever seen for this time of year. On Wednesday, the wind changed directions and were blowing from the ocean. This also meant the winds were blowing away from the monastery. The strong and gusty winds provide a dangerous environment, but the humidity in the air helped. It was still a dangerous situation, but not the highest alert level. Because conditions at the fire can be affected by many factors, so was difficult to know how all the factors affected the fire closest to the monastery.
The county officials showed a rough map indicating the active fire lines and the areas where the fire fighting crews were trying to prevent the fire from entering. The monastery property was in the middle of one of the fire fighting zones. Later, a monastery supporter informed the group that they had heard that fire fighting crews were on the monastery property.
The officials also stressed that the maps available on the Internet showing fire lines and hot spots are not reliable, and that only people on the ground can know for sure what is happening. County officials reported that of the ten big fires that were being tackled by firefighters, the cluster of fires affecting the monastery was the third in priority. They reported further that California is well organized and has been able to bring in other fire fighting resources from other states.
At 6pm, Luang Por Pasanno and Ajahn Karuṇadhammo arrived at the City of Ten Thousand Buddhas. The entire community was together again.
Thursday, October 12
We have been settling in at CTTB and greatly appreciating all of the hospitality here.
As of Thursday afternoon, officials reported that the Redwood Complex fire has spread to 32,000 acres and was only 5% contained. Officials also reported that 1,000 people were evacuated Wednesday night from Potter Valley which is just to the east of Redwood Valley. In total, there have been 8 fatalities and 8,000 people displaced because of the fire.
We heard from various sources that fire crews are using Abhayagiri’s parking lots as a staging area. This is both good and bad news for the property. It’s good news in that that the cloister area is being protected and safe enough for them to keep their equipment at the site. But it’s bad news in that the fires are very close.
The extended weather forecast for the weekend also indicated stronger winds. The fires started and spread on Sunday and Monday because of strong winds, and those conditions are expected to return Friday night and continue through Saturday.
There was still no definite information about the monastery property or when we would be allowed to return.
While the news of the monastery property continued to be volatile and uncertain, the community was in good spirits and people have been deeply touched by the generosity and kindness from both friends and strangers.