Kirkbride: Residents express gratitude to fire crews

August 31, 2013 

At Pinecrest, the lake shore was virtually deserted, with only a few people walking around. The once-crystal-clear view of the mountains across the lake was veiled in smoke.

WAYNE KIRKBRIDE

What began Aug. 17, consuming 442 acres in the Sierra, had by Friday mushroomed to more than 210,000 acres. By Aug. 24, when the Rim fire had consumed 122,844 in total, the communities along the corridor of Highway 108 east of Sonora had been placed on "advisory evacuation" notice, meaning the towns were in the path of advancing flames. Some residents prepared to leave or gathered possessions in case they were ordered to leave. Some left as a precaution.

At a community meeting in Mi-Wuk Village the afternoon of Aug. 24, throngs of people — perhaps 600 or more — filled the Word of Life Church. My wife and I were among the nervous folks listening to Forest Service and Cal Fire personnel, law enforcement and county representatives. Through maps and illustrations, we learned where the fire was and where it was going. At that time, the emphasis on holding the fire lines was around the Pine Mountain Lake and Groveland areas. Our communities, such as Tuolumne City, became staging areas for teams fighting the fire.

The consensus we brought from this meeting was one of relief that the command personnel knew what they were doing, had plans of attack to defend populated areas and had backup plans on top of backup plans, in case the fire jumped fire breaks. We were told the convoys of fire engines and equipment arriving from all over the state were there to protect residential areas within the communities should it become necessary.

The smoke was unrelenting — choking lungs and stinging eyes with little relief. I journeyed to Pinecrest Lake on Aug. 28, passing dozens of homemade signs that peppered Highway 108, thanking the firefighters and law enforcement for their hard work. Signs of bulldozer activity off the highway were evident: wide swaths of clearing through the forests, to deprive the fire from fuel if it reached that far.

At Little Sweden I pulled off the road for a look toward the fire, but smoke obscured any viewing. I spoke to one of two firefighters from Ventura County who were assigned to survey the area and familiarize themselves with the area's roads and conditions for other teams. One of the men commented on how beautiful the area was (even with all the smoke). He said he was amazed at how fast the fire had spread (it went from 53,829 acres Aug. 22 to 164,153 by Tuesday).

At Pinecrest, the lake shore was virtually deserted, with only a few people walking around. The once-crystal-clear view of the mountains across the lake was veiled in smoke.

Back in Sonora, at a fast-food restaurant, I watched six firefighters exit a very dirty firetruck and enter to eat. Their faces were soot-covered. The person waiting to take their order told them to pick anything they wanted—it was all on the house. This gratitude was evident across the county. Barbecues were organized here and there within the towns for firefighters' benefit. Strangers to the firefighters approached them and expressed their thanks. Thumbs-up and waves were given to passing crews on trucks. Banners were hung from everywhere, it seemed, thanking them for the effort to save our precious community from disaster.

By Friday, the threat to our communities appeared to be largely over. Crews began leaving our area for assignments farther east along the highway or back to the cities from which they came. It will take weeks, perhaps months, to extinguish this fire, but we residents will always remember it and the men and women who came to our aid.

Kirkbride lives in Twain Harte and writes about Mother Lode and Sierra matters. Send questions or comments to columns@modbee.com.

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