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Firefighting monks line up to battle raging wildfire on Big Sur

·2-min read
A group of firefighter monks clearing brush in California (California Interagency Willow Fire Incident)
A group of firefighter monks clearing brush in California (California Interagency Willow Fire Incident)

A group of Buddhist monks traded in their robes for firefighting gear in an effort to protect their worship centre in Big Sur, California from a raging wildfire.

Seven monks from the Tassajara Zen Mountain Centre have taken to cleaning up brush and installing a sprinkler system - dubbed "Dharma rain" - to maintain a layer of moisture around their worship centre.

Sozan Miglioli, the president of San Francisco Zen Centre, which operates the monastery, told The Associated Press that the monks have been lucky so far in their efforts.

"The blaze is about a mile away but we've been lucky with the weather, it has really cooled down," he said.

The fire is destroying land in the rugged mountains around Big Sur, climbing nearby hills by igniting grass and scrub plants dried out by the region's ongoing mega-drought.

More than 500 firefighters are in the area fighting the flames.

The majority of the people at the Buddhist centre evacuated, but the fire crew that stayed was aided by other monk firefighters from the San Francisco Zen Centre and the Green Gulch Farm Zen Centre.

The monks began taking firefighting duties on themselves in the aftermath of a 2008 wildfire reached the Tassajara Centre. A book, called Fire Monks, has been written about their efforts.

Laymen firefighters have existed in California for decades, particularly in rural areas with difficult access. The ranchers who settled in Malibu following the US westward expansion were known to fight fires on their properties using water-soaked burlap sacks.

Firefighting officials have largely warned people away from staying and fighting fires themselves, not only due to the danger posed by doing so, but because citizen firefighters can impede fire officials from reaching the fires or obtaining the necessary water pressure to effective battle the blazes.

Unlike other layman firefighters, however, the fire monks train every year with professional firefighters to ensure their tactics are sound and safe.

The wildfire season began early this year, brought on largely by the mega-drought affecting most of the western US. Lower-than-average rainfall and ground moisture results in dry brush, creating ideal conditions for fueling wildfires.

Multiple wildfires have already sprung up around the west.

In Whitney Portal, near Mt Whitney, the Inyo Creek Fire has obstructed hikers on the popular mountain trails.

Near Flagstaff, Arizona, lighting caused another wildfire to break out, forcing people to flee from their homes. Several other wildfires in the state forced evacuations and closed roads and national forests.

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