JARDINE: Flames show no respect for what people cherish

August 22, 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

— All you need to know about the Rim fire is that it just doesn't care.

Along Highway 120 south of Buck Meadows, it scorched the forest behind a sign remembering firefighter Eva Schicke, lost in a September 2004 blaze.

It attacked the people attacking it, forcing firefighters to save their base camp from going up in flames so they could keep fighting it elsewhere.

It burned a "Fire Restrictions" sign along Cherry Oil Road near the base camp, as if to say, "You know what you can do with your stinking fire restrictions sign."

North of the Tuolumne River, it destroyed a 127-year-old cabin many previous fires could not.

Indeed, such fires are insensitive, inhumane and never respectful. This one, now into its seventh day, shows no signs of relenting.

In fact, it tried to demoralize crews Wednesday night, literally exploding from 16,228 acres to nearly 63,400 acres 24 hours later.

It is wherever they aren't, taking off in all directions and preventing them from gaining any semblance of containment: only 1 percent through Thursday evening.

I spoke with a firefighter along Ferretti Road as we watched aircraft trying to stop flames from scaling a ridge and heading into the Pine Mountain Lake area. From a local crew, he'd been battling the fire since it began in the Clavey River Canyon on Saturday. The exhaustion showed on his face. This fire had gotten personal.

"I had to send my family away (evacuate)," he said.

Across the Tuolumne River, cattleman Stuart Crook spent Thursday morning dropping drift fences so his range cattle can flee safely if the fire keeps moving north.

Tuesday night, he and two others slept in the safety of an irrigated meadow on his family's 500-acre Meyer's Ranch, to be there in case the fire came. Wednesday night, they did the same, and it came.

"We were putting in dozer lines around the property," Crook said. "We retreated to the middle of the meadow and watched it burn. There was nothing we could do. There were 50-mile-a-hour winds pushing it. The firestorm pushed the winds."

A ranch that had survived other fires got right in the way of this one.

"We lost all of our 500 acres," said Crook, who has been running range cattle in the area since 1964. "It's a total loss. Now, I'm wondering how we're getting our cows outta here."

Jim Dambacher, a heavy equipment contractor, was building fire lines not far away when the firestorm moved north Wednesday.

"It jumped a mile, a mile-and-a-half and got behind us," he said. He and his crew got out safely. They were back at work Thursday, cutting breaks to protect land belonging to lumber giant Sierra Pacific Industries, which owns the sawmill in Standard, near Sonora.

A few miles south of Groveland, neighbors Roger Hardin and Ralph Hengel felt fortunate. Sure, they'll be without power for at least four days. But firefighters were able to spare their homes.

Hardin moved to the area in 1994.

"This is the first major fire of consequence since I've been here," he said. "There have others, but nothing like this."

So now what? Across the Tuolumne River Canyon to the east, flames were visible from Highway 120.

The country is steep and the terrain treacherous, making fighting it in the early stages difficult. To this point, firefighters have been primarily in a defensive stance, protecting homes and buildings.

Today could be pivotal, though. Thursday afternoon, truck after truck brought roughly 500 reinforcements and more equipment up the New Priest Grade to Groveland, and also through Tuolumne City into the threatened forests to the north and east. Many came directly from other fires, among them the husband of Michelle Puckett, a public information officer assigned to the Rim fire.

They met when she, too, fought fires. They were married eight years ago.

"I haven't see him in 40 days," she said. "He was up on the Corral Complex fire (near Arcata). "It's what we do. It's the way it's been for eight years … or eight seasons."

Reunion aside, there are 1,849 people fighting the fire. They have more weapons, too.

With lower temperatures expected, crews could find some opportunities to go on the attack, or at least counterpunch effectively, for the first time since this fire began.

Not that a fire cares. It just burns until they put it out.

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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