February 27, 2024
Wildland Firefighters Express their Gratitude
Firefigthers Letter

Handwritten letter by a participant of the Wildland Firefighter Retreat.

By Tova Green and Lee Lesser

To everyone at the San Francisco Zen Center,

I have no idea where to begin to thank you for making the retreat a possibility. The invitation for this event came to me at a point in my life when I needed something…something I didn’t know I needed. I was tired and hurting. Tassajara allowed me to rest. Tassajara has shown me I can heal. With love and gratitude, my heart bows to you for everything you provided us.

This is one of many letters that participants in the 2024 Wildland Firefighters Retreat wrote by hand at the end of their nine-day stay at Tassajara in January. Participants wrote to express their gratitude for Tassajara, the retreat, the support of the leadership team, and each other.

Sangha News spoke with Lee Lesser, one of the facilitators, to learn more about the retreat and how it was a transformative experience for so many.

According to Lee, there were twenty-six participants from Alaska, Arizona, California, Colorado, Montana, and Idaho, ranging from their mid-20s to their 60s. Most of them learned about the retreat by word of mouth. A few had helped Tassajara fend off fires in recent years. Several were supervisors with decades of service and a few had been firefighters for three or four years. Seven had been at the first in-person retreat in 2023 and returned to deepen their practice and to facilitate some parts of the retreat.

The leadership team included Chris Fortin, Lee Lesser, and Marc Lesser, all long-time Zen practitioners; Vanessa Meade who teaches Social Work at the University of Alaska; and Laura Martin, a Zen practitioner and therapist from Oregon.

“The firefighters’ work is very intense and they love doing it,” said Lee Lesser. For that reason, a work day in which they cared for Tassajara by raking leaves and doing controlled burns was included in the nine-day retreat. Lee noted that many arrived with a lot of grief, having lost many colleagues. They spent a day experiencing grief rituals, with time to speak about their losses. One ritual involved creating bundles of fragrant herbs wrapped with ribbons, which they threw into a fire at night.

“Their work takes them away from their families. It can be hard to bridge firefighting and family life. Many have experienced separations or divorce. Some have been injured while working, and have learned to “suck it up and drive on.” At the beginning of the retreat there were opportunities for participants to drop into their bodies from a different place and find ease, by learning to recognize where they were holding tension and learning to rest.”

The retreat included daily meditation and a half-day sitting, and the zendo was always open for those who wanted to sit. The firefighters soaked in the quiet and beauty of Tassajara. They practiced mindfulness while using their tools, to integrate practice into their firefighting work. There was a meeting in same-gender groups, to look at the differences in the ways women and men firefighters are treated.

Many volunteers supported the retreat, most of them working in the kitchen. The volunteers and firefighters shared some activities, including a New Year’s Eve ritual.

The first Wildland Firefighters Retreat in 2022, which was held over Zoom due to the pandemic, was sparked by the firefighters’ desire to learn to meditate, so they could bring meditation back to their communities.

Another participant wrote:

From my ever-growing heart,

Thank you for supporting the Wildland Firefighter Retreat at Tassajara. This experience will help me continue to be there for others while taking care of myself. In this profession it seems that our “selfs” are the last to get attention. Often this neglect of the self leaves firefighters doubting their worth or contributions to society.

My first experience at Tassajara came during the Soberanes Fire in 2016. As a Division Supervisor I passed through Jamesburg daily and even visited Tassajara prior to the burnout that occurred along the forest boundary above Tassajara. I have been blessed with the opportunity to attend this retreat last year and this year. My practice of being present, patient, and kind has helped me become a better human. I am grateful for this opportunity and space.