Fire-Fighting Monks

This crew of fire-fighting monks from different traditions formed spontaneously. Pictured left to right are Venerables Lodru, Jampel, Ajahn Karunadhammo, Caganando, Ajahn Sudanto, and layperson Jean-Marc.

Fire Brings Community Together

Kagyu Changchub Chuling (KCC) is a Vajrayana Buddhist center in the Tibetan tradition founded by Kalu Rinpoche. They’ve had a center in Portland since 1976. In 2001 they purchased 240 acres near Goldendale, Washington and began construction of a retreat facility called Land of the Clear Light Golden Dharma (Ser Cho Osel Ling, or SCOL). SCOL, with the participation of hundreds of donors and volunteers, will soon support long-term cloistered retreats and already hosts shorter group retreats and self-guided, personal retreats.

On September 7 a wildfire ignited by sparks from a truck exhaust broke out a few miles north of SCOL. The fire eventually burned almost 4,000 acres, destroyed dozens of homes and other buildings, and drew not only firefighters from across the Northwest, but also volunteers from across the Buddhist community who rallied to help at SCOL. Here are some reports that came from the sangha while the fire was in progress:

Dora DeCoursey:
The fire started near a Greek Orthodox Monastery -- that’s why it’s called the "Monastery Fire." We sometimes go to the delightful roadside coffee shop and bakery run by the nuns. Later we found out that the fire fighters managed to save their buildings, although it was burnt all around. My husband Bill Spangle and I awoke at 2:30 a.m. to a call from SCOL operations manager Galen Doucette. Galen was watching orange flames shooting up on the ridges a few miles away. He’d driven up the highway and seen the fire raging and decided to call for a consultation.

Bill and Galen discussed the highest priorities and how to leave the facilities, if it came to that: turn off mechanical systems, close the windows, set sprinklers on the roofs, set the fire hoses out, and shut off the propane tank. Bill and I didn't have to think for more than a few moments before we decided to go out there ourselves. We couldn't imagine leaving just two SCOL residents to deal with it all, and we would have a heck of a time trying to sleep if we stayed home anyway. So we threw some work clothes and boots together and rolled out of town before 3 a.m. for the two hour drive. From four miles away, we could see an awesome orange glow through the heavy smoke as we went up Highway 97.

Lodru Dawa:
Here’s an update of our "fire puja" adventures. I arrived with Tim and Evan from Heart of Wisdom Zen Temple. We came in a van loaned from Great Vow Monastery, which was very generous in opening up their tool shop to anything we wanted, so the van was indeed full! We slept for two hours in Hood River and then continued to Goldendale and were on the property by 7 a.m.

The smoke was as thick as Calcutta's air during an inversion. Huge tanker helicopters were making trips to the nearby lake to fill up, flying over our buildings to drop water on the fire three miles away. They passed so low we could see the pilot waving at us! After a bit of food we got to work. Weed whackers roaring, helicopter turbines whining, sprinklers sprinkling and rakes raking along the foundations, cutting grass around the barn, pulling out the flammables and relocating them to a safe location. Zuvuya was busy keeping us all fed and Jeff McCormack brought us POPSICLES!

This evening the Theravadin monks from the Pacific Hermitage in White Salmon came and built up the fire break. Afterwards the monks wanted to sit in the shrine room. After the inspiration of Pali chants, we sat together gazing at empty white walls and an empty shrine with a lone candle flickering. The forest was filled with the sound of crickets and sprinklers and a little helicopter noise. It felt like a whole week had been compressed into a single day.

The next morning work progressed. We parked vehicles nose out with keys on the dash and a buddy system if we had to bug out fast. People doing reconnaissance along the highway kept track of exactly where the fire was by the hour. The bolt cutters were ready if we had to exit the property through the back road.

We are guardedly optimistic. Things look really good, but fire is, well, fire. It could come back, but we are well prepared. The professional fire crews are impressed with our prep work and fire systems, and especially our 30,000 gallon tank of water.

Everyone has come together in a wonderful and palpably powerful effort to carry out this work. My personal experience is one of exhaustion, deep joy and play. It is obvious to all how our cumulative practice allows everyone to work together under quickly changing circumstances, multiple challenges, high temperatures, smoke, and demanding labor — all with good cheer and humor.

I've been up for 48 hours and am pretty buggy and I feel way too sticky for comfort. Time for a shower before sleeping, or they'll need a spatula to get me off the bed in the morning!

Julia King Tamang:
Today volunteers continued the hot, heavy labor of cutting fire lines and reducing flammable fuel near the buildings. They moved truckloads of leaves, pine needles, and branches away from the cloister, along some logs that were piled up for winter burning. They’ve been watering around the buildings as much as they can without depleting the 30,000-gallon tank near the cloister. They continued to refine their quick-response evacuation plan in case they are called to leave the property again. This evening Galen said it’s finally began to feel like the volunteer crew has gotten ahead of the work, and the feeling is less desperate. Nonetheless, volunteers will wake every two hours tonight to check the horizon for any signs of the fire turning in their direction. By tomorrow morning 27 volunteers will have spent time at SCOL since the fire began on Wednesday, and a crew of helpers for Sunday is being organized. I don’t know the names of all the people who have given their time and labor to protect the property, but I hold each and every one in my heart with deep gratitude. This experience has been an amazing example of the power of interconnection.

Lama Michael Conklin:
It has been surprising to witness so many people offer their time and energy to protect the cloistered retreat facility at Ser Cho Osel Ling. Some of them had never even visited KCC before, and some we had not seen for many years. What a joy! What if there had never been a fire? These other wonderful things would never have happened.

A few days after the fire was largely contained, a week-long retreat took place at SCOL as scheduled. Area residents and businesses, and KCC, collected donations to help those who lost homes and property.


For more information about the Klickitat Valley Fire Victims Fund, call 509-773-4246.
Information about KCC and SCOL is at:

Contributor: Compiled and edited by George Draffan.
Photo: Courtesy of Ser Cho Osel Ling.