Kayaker saw wisp of what would become Rim fire

pguerra@modbee.comAugust 31, 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.
    Recent stories written by Patty
    On Twitter: @pattyguerra
    E-mail: pguerra@modbee.com

Two weeks ago, Noah Hughes and a buddy were kayaking down the Tuolumne River from Meral's Pool in the Tuolumne Canyon when he noticed a small plume of smoke.

Hughes, an instructor of oceanography and meteorology at Modesto Junior College, had no way of knowing that he was seeing the start of the Rim fire, which would grow to 222,777 acres as of Saturday afternoon. The fire now stands fourth on the list of biggest wildfires in California history.

More than 5,000 firefighters are battling the blaze, which was listed as 40 percent contained Saturday evening. As progress continued, Mariposa County authorities lifted the mandatory evacuation for areas north and south of Bull Creek Road to Little Grizzly Mountain.

An evacuation advisory continues for areas east of Highway 108 from Ponderosa Hills north to Pinecrest, and closures have been implemented along the west side of Yosemite National Park as the fire has spread there.

Hughes said he remembers Aug. 17, the day the fire started, as "a spooky day in terms of how it was in the canyon and the way the wind was behaving."

At the time he saw the fire, Hughes estimates it was only about 200 acres big, and "it didn't seem like it was moving that fast at the time."

He wasn't really concerned about it until he and his friend put the kayak on the buddy's car and went to drive back to Hughes' Subaru at the spot where they put into the water.

"We joked about the possibility of my car getting burned up in a forest fire," Hughes said in an email describing his adventure. Pretty soon, the joke wasn't funny.

By they time they got to the entrance of Lumsden Road off Ferretti Road, the Forest Service had closed the gate and was evacuating the canyon. Hughes couldn't get in, despite his efforts to convince officials he only wanted to retrieve his car.

Jog down canyon to save car

Knowing there was a back road to Meral's Pool, they went back to Highway 120 and drove to Buck Meadows. The back road also was gated, so Hughes jogged down to where his car sat — in the neoprene booties he wears to kayak. He estimated it was about 2 miles down, with a drop of about 1,500 feet.

"The jog down into the canyon was worth it, but the next day I could barely walk," he said.

The fire would go on to burn through the Meral's Pool area and likely would have reduced Hughes' Subaru to a chunk of charred metal. He managed to make it home with his car intact, and some lasting images.

"I really have no sense of that (the fire's size), at least consciously," Hughes said. "I did stop and take a few pictures just because there was something in the back of my mind.

"I wanted to take a good look at the canyon because it might not be the same for a long time."

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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