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On June 28, 1976, a wildland fire swept through Ananda Farm, destroying 21 of our 22 simple homes. By God’s grace there were no deaths or injuries,(1) but in the space of an afternoon many of our families and single people were left homeless. The refugees spent that night at the Meditation Retreat, and at the monastery, as well as in some of the business buildings remaining on the property. (All of these buildings were saved.)
The following day, a meeting was held in front of the market. An emergency housing committee was quickly formed to ensure that everyone had long term temporary housing that was adequate. Another committee was formed to keep tabs on spot fires which might be flaring up again. The market prepared meals. Within a week nearly everyone had adequate shelter to take them at least through the summer, and in some cases, much longer. Most were able to return to work and begin to think about rebuilding. Although recovery was difficult and time consuming, it was made much easier by the camaraderie of shared experience. As Jyotish quipped, “People were so worried about everyone else’s well-being that they forgot to feel bad about their own situation.”
Boyd Johnson, Chief of the local fire department, offered his observations of the fire and its aftermath:
In 1976 I was new to the area and was staying with friends nearby on the afternoon the Oak Tree Fire started. I had a view of the meadow below me, where I watched a line of people turn away and flee from the fire as it moved uphill. [Editors note: These were not firefighters, but residents who were trying to fight the fire.]I also noted the absence of the fire retardant bomber aircraft, which I later learned were 100 miles away, fighting another large fire that afternoon. [Editors note: Dropping fire retardant from aircraft is the most effective way of fighting wildland fires in rural California].
The next morning I went outside to look over the fire area from my vantage point. One could see the bombers circling, and as I watched the first go in for a retardant drop it disappeared, diving below the ridgeline. I waited, and then waited uncomfortably, for it to reappear, pulling up from its dive. And then I saw a column of black smoke rise from behind the ridge. It was difficult to believe that what I had just witnessed had really happened. I learned later the bomber had crashed very close to the Ananda property line.
Years later, I joined the North San Juan Fire Department, and twenty five years later to the day, several people arrived at the office where I was now working as the fire chief. One of them was an elegant woman introduced to me as the widow of the pilot. They had returned, on that sad anniversary, to visit the scene of his death. I drove with them up to Maidu Ridge to show them the landmarks from that vantage point.
The Oak Tree Fire which caused so much damage to the Ananda Community remains this areas most damaging fire, as of this writing.
Ananda has given invaluable assistance to the North San Juan Fire Department, and the local community through its members who have served as volunteer firefighters, Fire District board members and Fire District employees and volunteers.
Savitri lived in Texas and had first visited Ananda for two months in the summer of 1975. She says, “I was devastated and disheartened by the news of the fire. I had planned to move to the community as soon as I could, and I couldnt imagine that Ananda would be able to go on. However, I decided to visit again anyway in August of 1976, about a month after the fire had happened, not at all knowing what to expect. On the physical plane, things were pretty bad. But the cheerful dedication of the members truly amazed me. Rather than packing up and leaving, nearly everyone seemed determined to stay and rebuild.
“I had made many friends during my stay the summer before, and I knew how little they had in the way of material goods — and then for my Ananda friends to lose everything they had and still be able to remain even-minded and cheerful — I was completely inspired. It was the sense of everyone looking out for one another — I knew that this attitude, plus Swami Kriyananda’s guidance, and Master’s continuing gracesustained them and kept them going. It made me want to stay and help rebuild in whatever ways I could.”
Rising From the Ashes
We were truly touched by the outpouring of financial and spiritual help we received, not only from other spiritually minded people but from the general public. Complete strangers offered help locally, by providing jobs and cash. Other spiritual groups responded to our newsletter, sending money as well as people to help us rebuild. These included members of Stephen Gaskins group in Tennesee, The Farm; 3HO (Yogi Bhajan’s group); Swami Chidananda, and Swami Satchidananda. There were many others, too numerous to mention.
Later, it was discovered that the fire had had been caused by faulty road equipment, belonging to the local government, which had ignited the dry grass on the roadside. We could have sued the county, but Kriyananda wrote to the Nevada County Board of Supervisors, saying, “We dont want to take our bad luck out on our fellow citizens by increasing the countys insurance rates. Anything that harms the county will, in the long run, harm Ananda also.” (See Chapter 14 of Faith is My Armor)
The fire provided Ananda an opportunity to change our direction. Some people found that their commitment did not extend to starting over again, and chose to leave the community. From our many donations we were able to compensate them financially for their lost homes as we reassessed our needs and tried to attune ourselves to Gods will for the community.
We were able to plan better for our housing. Instead of homes scattered across the property, we chose to place them in clusters, or neighborhoods. Some of our homes are now typical single-family dwellings; others are group houses of varying size. This has made it possible for economic savings on infrastructure, as well as promoting a neighborhood feeling as the community grows in population, and leaving more space for wildlands.
We expanded our school. Many children had been born at Ananda during these years; now they were ready for pre-school.
Manifesting a Pre-School Out of Nothing
Saraswati came to Ananda Village in early 1976 and began organizing a pre-school. She was given a small yurt for the first pre-school building.
The raging fire that swept through Ananda Village that June also swept away any hope we had for ever moving into the yurt, for this was one of the 21 houses that went up in smoke that day. Our dream for a pre-school in the community would have to wait until temporary homes had been found for the families who had lost everything in the fire.
Muktan and Jagadamba Knowles with their three children were one of the relocated families after the fire. They were given what was the reception center at that time (now Binay’s gem shop) down in the main area of the village. They had a daughter among the group of children waiting for the new pre-school to open, and they offered to let the school use the back part of their building where an addition was being built. Eventually, the house would be expanded and they would have more space for their growing family of five.
When I took my first tour of the rectangular cement slab with a roof and 2-by-4s and plastic for walls, I had a really hard time imagining how it could ever be anything other than depressing. I then realized how grateful I should have been when I was originally offered the rustic wooden building that was lost in the fire. It had at least had real walls and a floor that would not suck the heat out of warm little bodies!
Little by little, things came together and we were able to move into the building for pre-school classes in the early fall. We invited Swamiji over one day for a picture-taking session, and we were delighted when he actually came. We took several priceless pictures of Swamiji with his long hair and orange robes sitting on one end of the teeter totter with the entire pre-school class of five on the other end!
When the rains came that year, I found myself sunk in a mud nightmare at the pre-school. At that time, the roads had not been paved. We watched the roads quickly swallow up load after load of gravel, while maintaining a thick peanut buttery consistency that could suck the rubber boots right off an adult. (I am not joking.) When the children would come in from recess outdoors, they would be covered in mud. On a good day, one or two of them would have managed not to fall down in the mud and not need to change all their clothes before being let back into the classroom. When I threatened to keep them indoors, because they were too dirty when they came back in the classroom, there was a huge outcry of protest from each tiny little throat.
I remember meditating and offering up this mud-monster problem to Divine Mother one day. “OK, Divine Mother, I understand that your children need to go outside to play, but this mud business is too much for me. What am I to do?”
As I sat trying to expand my mind to allow any solutions that Divine Mother might like to send my way, a picture came into my mind of a huge truck filled with sawdust. Later, after meditation, I realized that what I had pictured was one of the trucks I had seen passing by the pre-school on several different occasions. These trucks came by from time to time to dump sawdust in the garden to help improve the soil.
So, why were sawdust trucks rumbling through my meditation? After I had a chance to think about it for a while, I realized that if we were to spread a foot-thick layer of sawdust over the peanut butter mud outside the pre-school, my mud nightmare would be over. The children would then need only a light sweeping to remove the sawdust and all would be well.
We did get the sawdust delivered, and it worked like a dream come true. And all because Divine Mother was kind enough to send sawdust trucks rumbling through my meditation one day. While trying to put together a pre-school out of nothing, I had finally learned that one has to actually recognize a blessing, before one can make use of it.
Even while rebuilding the community we continued our efforts in reaching out, not only through our concerts and programs, but also by establishing a center in nearby Sacramento, headed by Haridas and Vijay. They rented a small house in a residential area there, and converted the garage to a meditation temple.
Garage of the Eternal Religion
When Haridas and I arrived in Sacramento we dove headlong into establishing Ananda’s first outreach center. We remodeled the garage of our rental house into a chapel with lots of soundproofing, and created what was later affectionately known as the “Garage of the Eternal Religion.” On December 9, 1977 we had the official opening of the center and Swamiji came to give a public talk at the YWCA in Sacramento. We then began to give Sunday Services and classes in Hatha and Raja Yoga at the center. Soon there was an enthusiastic group of people who became dedicated to the teachings of Paramhansa Yogananda.
When we first started the center we hoped that Swamiji would give us some deep and inspiring guidance about how to proceed. One day, Swamiji pulled Haridas and me aside to give us that sage council. This was the only advice that he ever gave us about how to proceed. Swamiji said, “Boys, keep the place clean!”
- One firefighter was killed when his plane crashed. We later learned that it is believed that he died of a heart attack just before the plane crashed.
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© Ananda Sangha Worldwide 2013