Early Monday morning as a deadly swath of fire marched through 250 homes in Redwood Valley in Mendocino County killing eight people — the spiritual residents of a pair of mountain monasteries joined those fleeing into the night while the glow of flames threatened below.
Father Damian of the Holy Transfiguration Monastery was awakened by a gentle knock on his door — which didn’t quite seem to fit the urgency of the situation unfolding. But once he looked out his window from his mountain perch, he knew things were bad.
“I got up and I looked there - the world had turned upside down,” he said. “Right below us here I saw what looked like the sun rising from the earth itself.”
The sun he saw was the orange flaming terror chewing up home after home in the Redwood Valley neighborhoods below. He rang the monastery’s bells — then ran door to door gathering the monks. They gathered in the wooden chapel built in the 1980s, and prayed a prayer for trouble times.
Meanwhile three monks drove down the mountain to find out how bad it was — only to find the road impassible with fire. They returned to the monastery.
“They told me that it was just apocalyptic,” Father Damian recalled. “There was fire everywhere - there were animals running towards them.”
About a half mile down the hill, twenty-three monks at the Abhayagiri Buddhist Monastery watched the same terrifying flames licking at the hills. They hopped into cars and headed toward the only way out — North on Tomki Road to Willits — the treacherous dirt road no one uses.
“When we left we weren’t sure whether we were going to have a monastery,” said the monastery’s abbott, Ajahn Passanno. “It was flames all around.”
Father Damian decided to wait it out, wondering if they would survive. What if they couldn't make it off the hill?
“We kept thinking we can just go sit in the pond,” he said grinning. “And go and die from algal infections there.”
When they finally decided to flee, the fire’s most potent damage had been wrought. They drove down Tomki Road past the flattened grey debris that had once been a neighborhood.
“We have a family home we bless each year,” he said. “And it looked like maybe aliens from outer space had removed it.”
The Buddhist monks took refuge in nearby Ukiah, in the City of 10,000 Buddha’s monastery — the Catholic monks roomed with a variety of supporters. For the next week, neither group would know whether their monasteries survived the fires. Heavy smoke billowed from the mountains as helicopters ran non-stop drops of fire retardant — yet definitive news came as rumors.
“We did get word,” Passano said. “From a firefighter passing on word to a neighbor that's OK, the monastery’s still OK.”
On Tuesday, more than a week since the inferno, as county officials cleared residents from Redwood Valley to return to their fallen neighborhoods — probing through the ashes for objects from their lives before the fire — the residents of the two monasteries were cleared to return home, not knowing what they’d find.
Father Damian said the fire crept within a thousand feet of his monastery’s upper buildings — but seemed to spare both spiritual centers. As he walked the blackened ground just above the monastery’s land, a burned-out tree spit flame and smoke — a visual cue of how close the devastation that had run amok down the hill had come to his home.
He said Cal Fire crews had used his monastery as a home base, cutting a fire break from the property to Tomki Road, stopping the fire’s spread.
“I was grateful that we had a home to come home to,” he said. “I was so sad that our neighbors didn’t.”
On Tuesday afternoon, several carloads carrying the Buddhist monks climbed Tomki Road, past rows of destruction — burned out cars with melted hubcaps, forlorn chimneys without their houses, a pair of lion statues guarding the entrance to nothing.
The monks in their bright orange robes filed into the monastery for prayers of thanks — the compound’s buildings looking exactly as they did when the monks fled, save for a large fire truck standing guard in the middle of their yard.
“A lot of people have been involved in protecting the community,” Passano said, in a nod to the dozens of firefighters who watched over the property, “allowing us to be able to come back.”
Father Damian sat at a long row table inside his monastery’s empty community room. The majority of the ten brothers who live at the site had not yet arrived home. He said like the Buddhist monastery, his facility was planning to house a family that had lost a home in the blaze.
He pondered the emotions over things that had been spared — and those that had not.
“I was so happy,” he said of his return to the property. “But I saw what we had to come through and what people had lost — and so I didn’t want to be too happy.”