Rim fire nears 180K acres, 7th largest in state's history

pguerra@modbee.comAugust 26, 2013 

US NEWS CALIF-WILDFIRE 7 LA

Firefighters douse hot spots amid the smoldering ruins of the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp near Groveland, California, Monday, August 26, 2013. The 1922 village of cabins and a large dining hall on the Tuolumne River that once served 4000 people annually was almost totally destroyed by the massive, uncontrolled Rim Fire. All guests had been evacuated.

DON BARTLETTI — MCT

  • ABOUT THE REPORTER
    alternate text Patty Guerra
    Title: Breaking news editor
    Coverage areas: Breaking news, business
    Bio: Patty Guerra has been an editor and reporter at The Modesto Bee for 13 years. She has a journalism degree from Fresno State and previously worked at the Turlock Journal and Merced Sun-Star.
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— UPDATE: As of this morning, the Rim fire has reached 179,481 acres, according to the California Department of Forestry and Forest Protection. That makes the Rim the seventh-largest in state history.

As the cost of fighting the Rim fire topped $20 million Monday, state and federal officials at the highest levels pledged support. Gov. Jerry Brown visited the base camp from where more than 3,500 firefighters are battling the wildfire, which had charred about 160,980 acres as of Monday evening. And on Sunday, President Barack Obama called Brown for an update on the situation.

During their conversation, Obama "expressed his gratitude for the brave men and women working tirelessly to combat this devastating fire" and "reiterated his commitment to providing needed federal resources to support the ongoing state and local response," according to a news release from the White House.

Monday, the Federal Emergency Management Agency followed through on that promise, authorizing the use of federal money to help fight the fire. The federal government could pay as much as 75 percent of costs, FEMA said. Those costs could include expenses for field camps; equipment use, repair and replacement; tools, materials and supplies; and mobilization and demobilization activities.

The fire — its glow visible even from Oakdale on Monday night — has raged out of control since it started Aug. 17. Monday, firefighters had it 20 percent contained, up from 7 percent the previous day.

Mandatory evacuations remained in place for homes north of Old Yosemite Road, with areas including Tuolumne City and the area east of Highway 108 to Mi-Wuk Village under an evacuation advisory. Highway 120 into Yosemite National Park remains closed with no estimated time of reopening.

Though the fire has spread into the park, consuming 21,000 acres of remote area, the valley remains unscathed and open. Park employees said they are getting calls from prospective visitors who mistakenly believe the main portion of the park is affected.

A cashier at the Pinecrest General Store blamed television reports for giving misleading information. She said she received phone calls from family members in San Jose and Pismo Beach wondering why she had not yet evacuated because they had the impression that the entire county was on fire.

At the camp Monday morning, Brown mentioned the high cost of fighting the Rim fire, as well as others throughout the state. "We're going to have to ask the president to pitch in some more before the season is over," he said.

Officials said firefighters had made good progress Monday in building and securing lines along the northwest and northern sections of the fire, and with contingency lines along the western edge.

Help for struggling businesses

On Monday, the California State Board of Equalization announced help available for businesses affected by the fire.

"Taxes are the last thing people should have to worry about at a time like this," Board of Equalization member George Runner said. "That's why we want them to know we are here to help."

Many businesses in the area remained closed, as did Columbia College and K-12 schools throughout Tuolumne County. The schools are shut down at least through today, when officials will evaluate the situation and determine what to do next, Tuolumne County Sheriff's Sgt. Scott Johnson said.

The fire, which has resulted in the cancelation of the Strawberry Music Festival and the Film Fest Twain Harte, claimed another victim Monday — a Calaveras Community Band concert planned at Murphys Community Park on Monday. Organizers cited health concerns from the fire.

One thing that residents haven't had to worry about is burglary of evacuated homes. "We have had zero thefts in our evacuation area," Johnson said.

He pointed out that on a normal day, one deputy patrols the area. "We're putting out 10 to 12 two-man units 24 hours a day now," Johnson said.

Fifty law enforcement officers have come in from other agencies, in addition to 14 officers from the California Highway Patrol.

"We're saturating these areas with law enforcement," Johnson said.

Bee staff writer Kevin Valine contributed to this report.

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