On guard – Ananda spiritual group learned the hard way to be ready for fire
In 1976, a 450-acre blaze tore through the San Juan Ridge and devoured the fledgling spiritual village of Ananda. All but one of its 22 homes at the time were destroyed, according to the community’s historical documents.
In the three decades since, Ananda Village residents have learned how to protect their homes, schools and shops from wildfires. Their efforts paid off Saturday, when several fires broke out around Ananda and once again threatened the community.
Many of the buildings were protected by defensible space, and residents were ready to help fire crews keep the fires relatively small. Only one rental cabin – uninhabited at the time – was destroyed by the 40-acre blaze that posed the greatest danger.
“Since ’76, any time there is a fire, we are aware it could burn through Ananda,” resident Ric Moorhouse said Wednesday.
The 150-home Ananda community follows the teachings of Paramahansa Yogananda, the first Indian yoga master to live in the United States. Ananda was started in 1968 by Swami Kriyananda – otherwise known as J. Donald Walters – in Northern California. The San Juan Ridge community was the first of the group’s “world brotherhood colonies,” now found across the United States and in Italy.
The 1976 fire created a major setback for Ananda but left the members with a potent lesson.
“Since the time (of the 1976 fire) we have been very fire-conscious,” said John Smallen, the general manager of the community.
Three smaller fires scorched about 18 acres of brush fields Saturday on Oak Tree Road and the intersection of Tyler Foote Road and Highway 49, but the largest blaze, at 40 acres, burned next door to Ananda.
The cause of the blazes, which investigators said were most likely started by people, has not been determined.
The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, Nevada County Consolidated and North San Juan fire departments responded to the blaze, as well as the U.S. Forest Service and several strike teams from El Dorado, Butte and Amador counties.
Thanks to early preparation and guidance by the North San Juan Fire Protection District, the fire was kept in check until fire crews arrived.
North San Juan firefighters had trained members of the religious community to create defensible space around homes and to use fire-prevention tactics, such as keeping the community safe and informed during emergencies, Smallen said.
The village has its own private telephone service with a line that lets residents listen to what is going on in the “command center” – what the reception center is turned into in the case of an emergency. Some of the residents are also trained as “first responders,” who keep an emerging fire at bay until the fire department arrives.
“We tried to create a fuel break around all of our homes,” said Peter Goering, property manager for Ananda and member of the North San Juan fire department’s board of directors.
Many of the community’s fields are mowed regularly. Land that was rife with deer brush and manzanita bushes seven years ago is now free of debris. Surrounding the village are several ponds and large water tanks – designed specifically to fight fires – and even a helicopter landing pad.
Saturday, a lawn at the front entrance of Ananda served as an evacuation shelter for families.
When fire crews arrived, residents grabbed shovels and rakes and went to work behind the fire lines to put out small spot fires and sparks.
“We would just shovel dirt on them,” Moorhouse said. “A lot of us there put out little fires.”
While evacuations were not ordered, many residents prepared nonetheless by packing their vehicles to the roof with personal belongings and clothes. Cars were parked along the streets leading out of the community.
Smallen said Saturday’s fire was a chance for the community’s members to prepare for what could, next time, be a catastrophic blaze.
“I feel we had an impact,” Moorhouse said.
Ananda founder writes of 1976 wildfire
In “A Place Called Ananda,” a book about the history of his faith and the community he started, J. Donald Walters described a major wildfire’s toll on the community in 1976:
“I also urged our members not to think of Ananda as separate from society as a whole. Our good, I said, includes the good of everyone, and not that only of Ananda. If our immediate gain means loss for someone else, it is not a gain at all.
“Thus, in June 1976, after a forest fire destroyed 450 acres at the farm, and twenty-one of our twenty-two homes, neighbors phoned us excitedly to announce that the cause of the fire had been a faulty spark arrester on a county vehicle. ‘We can sue the county,’ they enthused, ‘and get all our money back!’ I wrote the county supervisors about it, but in a different vein. ‘I’m sure you’re aware,’ I said, ‘that Ananda was the biggest loser in the fire. Perhaps you’ve been worried about what we’ll do about it. I want you to know that we won’t be suing. We don’t want to take our bad luck out on fellow citizens by increasing the county’s insurance rates. Anything that harms the county will harm Ananda also, in the long run.’
“Our neighbors sued and collected. Ananda, on the other hand, faced the real possibility of bankruptcy. Another motto of ours has always been, ‘Jato dharma, tato jaya: Where there is adherence to truth, there lies victory.’ We ‘stuck to our guns’ and not only survived, but flourished.
“Some twenty members (including families) left as a result of the fire. Those who asked us for help were paid, out of donations that individuals and other communities were sending us. Only after paying them off did we begin the rebuilding of our own homes.”
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