Rim fire moves into top 20 blazes in state's history

kvaline@modbee.comAugust 23, 2013 

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate text Kevin Valine
    Title: Reporter
    Coverage areas: City of Modesto and nonprofits
    Bio: Kevin Valine has been a copy editor and reporter at The Bee since January 2006. He's worked at the Reno Gazette-Journal, Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune and Paradise Post as a reporter and copy editor. He's a graduate of San Jose State.
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— UPDATE: The Rim fire, at 125,000 acres, is the 16th-largest fire California has faced since 1932, authorities said Saturday. CalFire said the week-old fire, burning in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, continues to burn aggressively.

Sheriff's deputies went door to door Friday to the roughly 1,600 homes in Tuolumne City and Ponderosa Hills, advising residents to leave as the Rim fire raged toward them and grew into one of the largest wildfires in California history.

Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Johnson said the evacuation advisory also applied to other communities east of Sonora, including Soulsbyville and Willow Springs. But residents in those communities were notified by reverse 911.

Johnson estimated Friday's advisory affected several thousand residents.

Since the Rim fire started eight days ago near Groveland in the Stanislaus National Forest, sheriff's deputies have issued about 6,000 evacuation advisories and about 260 mandatory evacuations in a county with about 55,000 residents. The other evacuations were in the Groveland area. (Click here for latest information.)

The wildfire had grown to more than 125,000 acres as of Fridayevening. As the fire marched west toward Tuolumne City, it also moved east into Yosemite National Park, burning about 11,000 acres in the park. Highway 120 into Yosemite remained closed.

The fire was at 5 percent containment.

Friday's acreage was an estimate based on reports from firefighters fighting the blaze. A more accurate estimate will be released this morning based on an analysis of infrared images of the fire taken overnight from aircraft.

The fire is threatening more than 4,500 homes in the Groveland and Tuolumne City areas. It has destroyed four homes, 12 outbuildings and three commercial buildings. There have been no deaths or major injuries.

Earlier Friday, several Tuolumne City residents were preparing for the worst but planned to stay.

"We're packed up, but I'm not going until they make us," said Mia Devoto as she and three of her children loaded their cars with family photos and other keepsakes. She estimated the fire was about five miles away.

"I've lived here for 30 years," Devoto continued. "We had a couple (of wildfires) before, in '87 and '97. But probably not this close. We're just going to have to wait and see."

The Rim fire made an odd homecoming for Devoto's son, Brad Easley. The 24-year-old Army military policeman is on two weeks' leave after serving in Afghanistan. "It doesn't matter," Easley said, happy to be home anyway.

The Red Cross shelter at the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora took in 102 evacuees Thursday night. Red Cross spokesman Jordan Scott said shelter workers were expecting 400 to 500 on Friday night as the number of evacuations grew.

The Red Cross is not the only agency gearing up.

As of Friday morning, Tuolumne County Animal Control had taken in 19 cats and five dogs from pet owners who had evacuated. This is in addition to the more than 80 cats and dogs and rabbits already at the shelter.

"Our phones are ringing off the hook," Animal Control Manager Jennifer Clarke said.

Animal Control can't take livestock, so staff has been working to place livestock threatened by the fire with people who have volunteered to take in the goats, chickens, horses and other animals. More than 100 animals have been placed, including one bison.

Clarke said this is an example of how Tuolumne County residents help one another in tough times.

The Rim fire is among the 20 largest recorded California wildfires by acreage, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

The fire has exploded in size, from about 2,500 acres Monday. Fire officials say it has spread so fast because of a dry winter making brush and trees vulnerable to fire. The steep terrain has made firefighting difficult.

More than 2,000 firefighters and other personnel from across California and the nation are battling the blaze. Those numbers include 58 firefighters from Stanislaus County fire agencies and 60 Stanislaus County sheriff's deputies and officers from several county police departments.

Sgt. Johnson said the 60 extra officers essentially double the size of the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Department. The Stanislaus officers are helping with the evacuations and guarding neighborhoods where residents have left.

Some were in Tuolumne City on Friday evening, using their loudspeakers as they drove along streets, advising people to leave.

The Tuolumne Utilities District, which provides drinking water to about 80 percent of the county, is asking residents to stop watering their lawns and gardens to save water for firefighters. It also is advising people not to water their roofs as a fire prevention measure.

The district noticed a steep decline in its Tuolumne City water tank Thursday. It turned out residents were watering their roofs after authorities closed a road because of the fire. Residents stopped once the district spread the word to do so on the radio and over the web.

"This fire is very erratic, and we are trying to keep that water in case firefighters need it," TUD spokeswoman Lisa Westbrook said.

The fire has prompted the closure of the upcoming Strawberry Music Festival near Yosemite and Film Fest Twain Harte. The Sept. 7 parade in Columbia commemorating California's admission to statehood still is on, but organizers are watching the sky. Bitter smoke from the fire has blanketed the county for several days.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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