Forest fires burn more rapidly going uphill than down. Rising heat and smoke dry and preheat the fuel. When the wind is behind a fire going uphill, it is very hard to stop it.
This was the combination that burned down much of Ananda Village in June 1976. All these years later, we haven’t forgotten. So in August 2004, at the end of a long dry summer, when a fire started roaring uphill with the wind behind it, we had no illusions about how dire the consequences might be. Right in its path was a cluster of houses and the Expanding Light Retreat.
Volunteer firefighters in the community, plus untrained residents and many guests, sprang into action to protect a few of the smaller buildings. Air tankers and helicopters began dropping water and fire retarding chemicals on the blaze. Forty trucks and four hundred firefighters arrived in an effort to contain what was rapidly becoming a raging inferno.
“This is the kind of fire that easily gets out of control and burns thousands of acres and hundreds of homes,” the fire chief told us.
Community members gathered on the front lawn of the market.
“We were on the other side of the hill from the fire,” Devi said later, “a safe quarter mile from the blaze. But with the heat, smoke, noise from the planes, and uncertainty about what might happen next, you could feel the tension grow. The fire felt like a negative psychic force trying to weaken us and make us afraid. There was nothing more we could do to contain the fire physically, but there was much we could do to generate light to overcome the darkness.”
Devi organized a prayer circle, starting with about twenty people, soon expanding to fifty or more. Together they visualized the fire itself and all those affected by it: buildings, plants, animals, and people.
Systematically they brought to mind each aspect, surrounding it in light, and praying for well-being, safety, and divine harmony for all. After each prayer they chanted AUM three times. AUM is the all-pervasive vibration of the universe, the substance from which all created things are made.
“At first,” Devi said later, “the fire seemed to be winning, its darkness more powerful than our light. Undaunted we prayed on. Chanting AUM over and over again, for two hours we prayed, until finally we felt the darkness being chased away by our ever-expanding light.”
Soon after, the fireman coordinating the effort arrived at the market. To our immense relief he announced, “The fire is contained.”
Then he went on to say, “You are very lucky. The blaze was racing uphill with the wind behind it toward your retreat and your homes. We were doing everything we could, but I have to say, I didn’t see how we could stop it. Then, suddenly, the wind reversed itself! It started blowing the fire away from your buildings, back down the hill into the already burned areas. With the wind on our side, and no fresh fuel to feed the fire, we were able to bring it under control.”
He paused, then added, “I’ve never seen that happen before.”
Looking at the circle of community members who had been praying for the last two hours, he said, “I don’t know what you people did, but whatever it was, it worked.”