JARDINE: Power fire's smoke leaves breathing room at Pinecrest

jjardine@modbee.comAugust 7, 2013 

    alternate textJeff Jardine
    Title: Local columnist
    Coverage areas: People, issues, the community
    Bio: Jeff Jardine joined The Bee's staff in 1988 after a decade at the Stockton Record. He covered sports before moving into news in 1996 and became the Local Columnist in 2003. He graduated from University of the Pacific in 1979, majoring in communications and history.
    Recent stories written by Jeff
    On Twitter: @jeffjardine57
    E-mail: jjardine@modbee.com

— There's an old adage that goes, "Where there's smoke, there's plenty of room on the beach, the campgrounds are empty and there's no wait in the lines at the snack shack."

Or something like that. This is what the folks who waited out the thick exhaust that blanketed the resort area earlier this week discovered Wednesday simply by sticking around.

About a dozen miles to the west, the Power fire continued its climb up the southeast wall of the Stanislaus River's Middle Fork canyon toward Highway 108. Beginning Monday at the upper end of Beardsley Reservoir, it's since gobbled up roughly 881 acres of prime rattlesnake habitat. Between the plumes of smoke and the remoteness of the terrain, the flames aren't visible from most vantage points. From Beardsley Dam, you'll see only the smoke, along with helicopters dipping their buckets into the reservoir.

From a rocky outcropping east along 108, you could hear those same helicopters swoop in to make their water drops before finally escaping the smoke and coming into view.

You could hear plane engines thundering as they circled and then disappeared into the cloud to drop their pink, goopy retardant.

And the terrain is so steep that you don't even see firefighters on the ground — unless a couple of them pick their way through the manzanita and stand next to you with binoculars and walkie-talkies in hand to help guide crews to the hot spots. That's what happened to Bee photo editor Joan Barnett Lee and I on Wednesday when we ventured out to a boulder with hopes of getting a better look at the smoldering hell below.

These officials, both operations sections chiefs, recently had arrived from San Bernardino. Like us, they wanted a better view.

Some 447 firefighters have achieved 32 percent containment, according to an incident report Wednesday night. It hasn't claimed any structures because nobody would be crazy enough to build where it's burned so far. There are a couple of Forest Service roads, though, and a burned, rotted oak tree fell on a fire engine Tuesday morning, causing severe damage.

Otherwise, in such rugged country, the smoke had to travel a ways to really annoy anyone, which brings us back to Pinecrest.

The resort is hugely popular during summer months.

"Over the weekend, and on Monday, the place was packed," said Scott White of Manhattan Beach, who is staying at the University of California's Lair of the Golden Bear camp. Pointing toward the snack shack nearby, he added, "I waited a half-hour for food."

"We went over to Natural Bridges (on Tuesday)," said Kip Mihara of Marin County, staying with his family at the Cal camp as well. "We could see the smoke when we drove back. You would smell it in the camp when no fires were allowed."

One other camper told me the smoke had been as thick as valley fog, and some folks began to panic.

"You could read the body language of the people on the beach," he told me. " 'Shouldn't we be doing something?' "

Others pestered forest rangers, who didn't have many answers, he said.

"They were having to answer the same question 15,000 times," he said. " 'How long is this going to last?' "

Some packed up and went home, cutting short their vacations. But by Wednesday morning, the wind had shifted. The smell of smoke remained, but you once again could see the majestic mountain rising above the lake's east side.

The blue sky returned. The beach was open and inviting. A dozen or so kids played in the lake, the Miharas' asthmatic daughter among them.

The snack bar, where people often stand 30 deep on busy summer days, had no lines and no waiting. The burgers, fries and hot dogs were there for the taking.

And there were campsites available, too, which often isn't the case even midweek.

Indeed, good things happened to those who waited out the smoke.

Jeff Jardine's column appears Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. He can be reached at jjardine@modbee.com, @jeffjardine57 on Twitter or at (209) 578-2383.

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