E-mail from a burning mountain

A secluded hermitage and its resident monks are threatened by a devastating fire on California's Big Sur coast.

Published September 28, 1999 4:00PM (EDT)

"Your fire finally made it to our newspapers," I write Father Peter-Damian via e-mail. Father PD, as he's known at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, keeps me informed about the fire in the Los Padres National Forest. The Hermitage sits in splendid isolation on a steep mountainside overlooking the Pacific Ocean, about 25 miles south of Big Sur village in California. The fire burns less than a mile away.

I met Father Peter-Damian in late August. He had returned my call asking to interview the monks about their fruitcake operation for a story I hoped to write in time for the Christmas season. He told me most people had to book months in advance to stay at the retreat house, but a last-minute cancellation had just freed up a room for the following day. I set out on the four-hour drive, hoping my years in Catholic school would help me look more knowledgeable than I felt.

As agreed, I met him at the bookstore at 9 a.m. after arriving late the previous night. He looked about my age -- late 40s -- although his buzz cut and conspiratorial expression reminded me of boys I'd been friends with in school. For the next two days, I interviewed Father PD and we toured the property. I finished up my notes, drove home and sent flowers a few days later to thank the monks for their hospitality.

I heard about the fire the next day when Father PD e-mailed a thank you for the lilies I'd sent: "There is a forest fire burning just four miles south of us and we are on alert. About 200 firefighters and a few huge planes are trying to put it out or bring it under control, but the air is heavy with the smells of burning nature. Keep us in your prayers. We live with this constant threat, but it only becomes painfully real once every so many years. Thanks again for the lovely gift which was unnecessary but a delightful surprise! Father PD."

He'd said earlier that the monks paid a price for their seclusion. They had lost access to Monterey for several months last year when rock slides blocked Highway 1, eliminating their usual Friday trips north for food and other supplies -- "everything from sheetrock to underwear," as Father PD had put it. The alternate routes -- east, over the mountains to King City, or south, to Cambria -- took precious additional hours away from their prayer and work commitments at the hermitage.

I assumed the firefighters would soon control the blaze. However, on Sept. 15, my correspondent sent another message: "Just a quick note to let you know that the fire has worsened and we have been making contingency plans for evacuation. I have volunteered to stay behind, should it come to that, and help the professional firefighters in any way we (3-4 monks) can do so. If you do not hear from me for awhile, it is because I have no access to e-mail or I am gone temporarily or the phone lines have been burned out. Please keep us monks on the mountain in your prayers."

I prayed, then pounded out a quick response, suddenly self-conscious. I barely knew Father PD, yet I felt a stake in the fate of the peaceful mountainside oasis. Perhaps most visitors did. People of all faiths -- and some with none -- came to the hermitage to experience its acceptance and simplicity. I'd noticed the effect even though mine was a work visit. At several points during our interview, I fought the urge to set aside my note pad and say, "Can we just talk about the real reason I'm here?" -- even though I didn't know exactly what it was. I got the feeling Father PD knew. He'd said that quiet walks, meditation, even baking fruitcake and repairing furniture, let the mind "tune in" because there was no need to tune anything out. I assumed you also needed to be ready to hear what your mind had to say.

The thought of sending an e-mail to Father PD over potentially burning phone lines made me squeamish so I called the small Camaldolese monastery in Berkeley on Sept. 17.

"Yes," a monk answered, "someone just called from Big Sur five minutes ago. The firefighters think they can contain it. They'll know for sure by tomorrow."

I got back on my computer, cautious but relieved. Under "Contained?" I wrote, "If you think of anything I can do, please let me know ... Maybe the timing of my visit was for a purpose I didn't know about at the time. Catherine."

I inhaled a sharp breath the next day when I clicked on my e-mail. Father PD had responded: "The fire has now become fires and they are not contained. We are under ever increasing danger, but are hopeful that it all might bypass us or the firefighters might ward it off. We are presently under a voluntary evacuation, but that may change any day. Needless to stay, things are stressful here. Keep us in your heart. PD."

Then, two days later, "We are being evacuated within the half-hour. I will be staying on as part of the skeletal crew, after all. The smoke is beginning to come over the mountain as the fire works its way down Limekiln Canyon toward us. Please keep us in your prayers. PD."

I prayed again. Hard.

"I am so sorry to hear the latest," I answered. "'Evacuation' is a frightening word but I am glad to hear the firefighters are concerned about your safety. Please keep me informed. Catherine."

I could barely look at the paper the next morning. Page 1 displayed a photo of a mountain near the hermitage. Six plumes of smoke billowed up the steep terrain, connected to orange lines of fire burning about halfway up. The article confirmed the messages I'd received from my friend. According to the West County Times, "Monks at the New Camaldoli Hermitage, a monastery perched 1,300 feet above the Pacific Ocean, were ordered to leave on Monday evening ... About 3,000 firefighters Monday were battling this fire, which has burned more than 25,000 acres of Big Sur in the past two weeks."

Father PD's two-day silence made me anxious. Friday I realized I was checking my e-mail every hour, so I picked up the telephone and dialed the hermitage, hoping I wouldn't interrupt anything essential. I felt relieved when the tape machine clicked on. "Please call if you can," I said. "I'm wondering how it's going."

Then I carried the portable phone around the house with me in case it rang.

Several hours later it did. A strained voice came through the crackling phone line. "Hi, it's Father PD. I just got your message." His voice hollow from smoke and a recent virus, he said the firefighters had lit a burn-back at noon on the ridge southeast of the Hermitage to keep the fire from traveling from that direction.

"We're still in a holding pattern," he said. "Things could go either way. The fire that was coming toward us from the back of the mountain stopped at a firebreak and moved into a canyon to the north. Even if the burn-back that they lit today works, there's still a danger that the Limekiln Canyon fire could turn into a firestorm, burn around the edge of the canyon and come at us at a hundred miles an hour from below."

Flash fires were the other danger: Hot spots could ignite away from the main blazes. "And we had 60 extra guests for dinner last night," he concluded. "The firefighters seemed to appreciate it. I think all they usually get are sandwiches and that sort of thing."

I heard the need for rest in his fading voice. I thanked him and hung up.

Saturday brought a dramatic weather shift to the Bay Area that reached down the central California coast. Early autumn's dry, heavy heat replaced the soothing coastal fog of summer. On Sunday evening, Father PD wrote, "They are still working on back-burning ... and creating a blackened protective ring around the hermitage. The smoke is something else, but we are safe so far ..."

Igniting a ring of fire to protect a spiritual outpost seemed almost too allegorical, yet I felt a sudden flash of optimism.

"Next time, come back for yourself," Father PD had said when I left in August. Now I know I'm ready.

In the meantime, I continue to log on, hoping for good news.

By Catherine Shepard

Catherine Shepard is a writer who lives in Berkeley, Calif.

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