Rim fire grows to 187K acres, costs rise to $33 million

pguerra@modbee.comAugust 27, 2013 

    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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— As firefighters continue to slow the growth of the Rim fire, they’re getting more help from above.

The U.S. Forest Service has ordered three MAFFS (Modular Airborne Fire Fighting System) aircraft from where they have been operating in Boise. The three aircraft will join efforts in fighting the fire, which has grown to 187,466 acres in Tuolumne and Mariposa counties since it started Aug. 17.

As of Wednesday morning, firefighters had the fire 23 percent contained, authorities said. A total of 4,191 firefighters are working the blaze, which has so far cost $33 million to fight.

The Forest Service operates five MAFFS. Since their initial activation June 11 to fight forest fires in southern Colorado, MAFFS aircraft have made 479 drops using 1,211,631 gallons of fire retardant, according to a press release from the 153rd Air Expeditionary Group. They have since fought fires in Idaho, Oregon, Wyoming, Colorado, Utah, Arizona, California and Nevada.

Military aircrews can discharge 3,000 gallons of water or fire retardant along the leading edge of a forest fire in less than five seconds, covering an area a quarter of a mile long by 100 feet wide. Once the load is discharged, ground crews at a MAFFS tanker base can refill the modules in less than 12 minutes, officials said.

From his porch in Mi-Wuk Village, Sean Le May has watched the steady march of the Rim fire nearly since it began. Though he has been through his share of wildfires every few years, he's never seen anything like this.

"This thing here, starting at 800 acres and the way it's doubled and doubled and doubled — it's mind-boggling," Le May said.

Since starting on Aug. 17, the Rim fire has grown to 184,481 acres, consuming more than 100 buildings, 31 of them homes, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. Of those buildings, more than 60 were tent platforms or tents, the California Interagency Incident Management Team said. The cause of the fire has not been determined.

More than 4,000 firefighters from all over the state are fighting the fire and had it 20 percent contained on Tuesday.

A couple of those firefighters have taken up posts at Le May's house.

"The fire people are calling my place the lookout," Le May said, adding that he has offered his 10-acre property as a staging area if needed.

Le May said he and other residents have been talking about increased fire danger for the last few years.

"It's sure been awful dry, and we're due for one," he said. "That's the way it is when you live in the mountains — if you haven't seen one for three or four years, you're due for one."

Firefighters limiting damage

The fire has consumed Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, but firefighters have successfully defended Camp Mather, Evergreen Lodge, Peach Grower and Harden Flat, Cal Fire said Tuesday. State and federal authorities are cooperating on managing the fire.

The blaze has entered a remote area of Yosemite National Park, burning along the eastern edge. Park officials said Tuesday that firefighters are working to protect the historic Merced and Tuolumne groves of giant sequoias, but the majestic trees are not under imminent threat.

Yosemite will close Tioga Road inside the park from Crane Flat to Yosemite Creek beginning at noon today for fire suppression activities. Other areas of the park, including Yosemite Valley, remain open and relatively smoke free, officials said.

The fire approached Hetch Hetchy, the main reservoir serving San Francisco, but fears that the inferno could disrupt water or hydroelectric power to the city have diminished. Utility officials monitored the basin's clarity and used a new $4.6 billion gravity-operated pipeline system to move water quickly to reservoirs closer to the city.

Humidity was expected to increase starting Tuesday afternoon, which could help suppress flames, said Matt Mehle, a National Weather Service meteorologist assigned to the fire.

"The next couple of days are really going to be key for us," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant. "If the weather cooperates, and we see an increase in containment, we could really turn a corner on this stubborn fire."

Closures, evacuations continue

Schools throughout Tuolumne County, including Columbia College, will remain closed for the rest of the week. And mandatory and advisory evacuations continue.

Like other residents of Mi-Wuk and along the Highway 108 corridor in the area, Le May is under an advisory evacuation. He said two Modesto police officers — working in the area as part of the statewide Office of Emergency Services — came to his house Monday night to talk to him.

The officers told Le May that if the evacuation order becomes mandatory, he will have to leave. Le May disagreed and told them so.

"I'll leave before I get my bacon fried," he said he told the officers. "You don't worry about it. You all have a nice evening."

Le May said he doesn't feel particularly threatened. Though the smoke at his home increased on Tuesday, from what he can tell, firefighters have managed to keep the fire from encroaching on Mi-Wuk. Firefighters have brought in masticators to clear out brush and lower branches and foliage from trees in the area.

Similar work is happening at the home of Shelley Jachetta, who lives at the bottom of Mi-Wuk.

"They're cutting a fireline right behind our house," she said. "We can't see how close it's getting, but they've started to cut down the back yard. They've got to, but still, it's sad."

Bee photographer Andy Alfaro, Bee columnist Jeff Jardine and the Associated Press contributed to this report.

Breaking News Editor Patty Guerra can be reached at pguerra@modbee.com or (209) 578-2343. Follow her on Twitter, @pattyguerra.

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