The area burned in the Rim Fire in southern Tuolumne and northern Mariposa counties topped 16,228 acres early this morning, a 60 percent increase in size over a 24-hour period marked by further evacuations, flood and health advisories.
A giant smoke cloud hangs over Groveland Tuesday afternoon. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
The fire, burning since Saturday, was 5 percent contained this morning, meaning no firm line had been established around 95 percent of its area.
It was upgraded to a “Type 1” incident from a “Type 2,” meaning more-specialized and a greater number of resources will be assigned to it.
“It puts us in line for priority on our requests for aircraft and other types of support,” said Stanislaus National Forest spokesman Jerry Snyder.
“They are expected to be rolling in today.”
More than 850 people, mostly firefighters and support personnel, have been assigned to fight the fire.
Retardant-dropping planes and helicopters are leading the battle, as most of the burning areas are difficult to reach. The fire is moving up the various canyons and slopes of the Clavey and Tuolumne rivers, Snyder said.
The fire still threatens 2,500 homes on the fire’s western flank at Ferretti Road, near the Pine Mountain Lake gated subdivision, in an area dubbed “Division Z.”
About 10 miles to the east on Highway 120, several structures near Buck Meadows are also still threatened. However, they are mostly spread out, making them easier to protect than the more-densely populated PML subdivision.
The Rim Fire now encompasses an area stretching east to west from Buck Meadows to Ferretti Road, and from north to south from Butcher Knife Ridge to the Pilot Ridge area.
It began as a relatively isolated fire on the south slope of the Clavey River canyon near the Lumsden Bridge. It grew massively Monday when winds helped propel it out of the canyon, over the Tuolumne River and up a ridge to Highway 120, which the fire proceeded to jump.
Matters were exacerbated when planes and helicopters were diverted from the fire to help fight other fires in the West.
It spread north of the Clavey, burned a southeast path around Buck Meadows, and grew to the west, hopping 120 at the Groveland Ranger Station on Monday.
Tuolumne County officials Tuesday afternoon urged residents along Ferretti Road, from Highway 120 to Clements Road, to evacuate their homes. Ferretti Road at Clements Road was also closed.
Ferretti Road roughly parallels the Tuolumne River canyon, where the fire is most active.
Overnight infrared readings Tuesday showed the area, where containment efforts have been most effective, is much cooler than other parts of the fire now.
Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Office spokesman Scott Johnson said about 500 firefighters Tuesday worked in the steep, rugged area to set fire lines and protect hundreds of homes.
At Yosemite Vista Estates, a retirement community off Ferretti Road, Edie and Darryll Cleppers called for their missing cat as they packed mostly just the essentials for a few days away from home.
But “some legal documents, too,” Edie added.
They have lived in Yosemite Vista Estates for 10 years and have never had to evacuate.
Neighbor Donald Hull, 71, was surprised at how fast the fire grew.
“I didn’t think it was that bad until they told me this morning we may have to evacuate,” Hull said.
Other areas evacuated between Monday and Tuesday evening included Buck Meadows, Harden Flat and several family camps along Highway 120, including camps operated by the cities of San Jose, Berkeley and San Francisco.
Some 200 senior citizens were bused home Tuesday from Camp Mather, San Francisco’s family camp. It was senior citizen appreciation week at the camp.
Mather is the planned site of the popular Labor Day Strawberry Music Festival. Charlie Cran, the festival’s organizer, said its not clear yet if the fire will force the show’s cancellation.
“We’re waiting to see,” he said this morning.
Evacuees from southern Tuolumne County and northern Mariposa counties without other places to stay were taken Tuesday to the Mother Lode Fairgrounds in Sonora, and to the Greeley Hill Community Center.
An evacuation center hastily set up Monday at Tioga High School closed Tuesday morning because of poor air quality and its distance from most services, said Tuolumne County Office of Emergency Services Coordinator Tracie Riggs.
The Tioga shelter served just four people briefly, said Gary Van Den Bergh, a volunteer with the American Red Cross Disaster Services Human Resources program.
Red Cross officials said up to 28 people made use of the fairground shelter Tuesday, getting food and information mostly. Only 12 people stayed overnight.
“We’re here for those people who don’t have anywhere else to go,” said Jimmy Valencia, the assistant lead for an American Red Cross volunteer team based in Copperopolis.
Valencia and other volunteers came from Calaveras County due to a lack of organized volunteers within Tuolumne County.
The shelter offered food and water, child care, cots, showers, disaster health assessments and counseling. Volunteer Janet Stewart said a Girl Scout troop donated fruit, water and cups sold at a discount by Save Mart. Local hotels were also providing towels, she said.
Among Tuesday’s evacuees were some tourists from Avignon, France, who remained in good spirits despite many uncertainties Tuesday afternoon.
“We were at the Buck Meadows Hotel … visiting Yosemite park. During the visit, when we came back to (go to) the hotel, we heard the road is closed because of fire,” said Hugo Regairaz. “We had to find another hotel in the park.”
“When is it possible to pick up our clothes? Everybody says we don’t know,” wondered Clarisse DeHenry. “We don’t have tickets for our flight … our computers. This is a big problem.”
“It’s crazy,” Regairaz said.
“But funny,” Laurence Regairaz, his mother, chimed in.
Highway 120 remains closed indefinitely from four miles west of Groveland Ranger Station and four miles east of Buck Meadows.
Yosemite National Park spokeswoman Kari Cobb said an area of the park near Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, along the upper Tuolumne River, has been closed for “precautionary reasons.”
The northern park entrance on Highway 120 remains technically open, Cobb said, but the road closure means few will be able to get through.
Yosemite Area Regional Transportation Service suspended its bus lines Tuesday to Yosemite National Park. Local Tuolumne County Transit buses, meanwhile, were assigned to help evacuate people.
The chance for the fire to further spread remains high today, according to Snyder.
Forecasts continue to call for a chance of thunderstorms through Thursday.
The new storms could more greatly affect firefighting efforts as they are forecast to be at lower elevations. Most of this week’s weather has occurred at higher elevations, exceptions being a brief storm Tuesday that dropped rain over Central Tuolumne County, prompting a flood warning, and a storm Monday that dropped enough rain to hamper the spread of flames that threatened a firefighter staging area.
A number of issues that affected the early response to the fire on Monday, including communication problems and a shortage of firefighting resources, have been addressed, Snyder said.
Notably, the fire is now a Type 1 incident, getting more access to resources.
Also, better communications equipment has arrived. The remote and hilly terrain has created spotty phone and radio communications for emergency personnel.
Snyder said better equipment arrived Tuesday.
State of emergency
Following a briefing on the fire Tuesday morning, the Tuolumne County Board of Supervisors declared a “local state of emergency” for the south county.
Such a proclamation sets the groundwork for possible state or federal relief funds for the fire, especially if it results in long-term displacement of evacuees or high numbers of property losses.
Union Democrat editor Craig Cassidy and reporters Chris Caskey, Austen Thibault and Sean Janssen contributed to this report.
Weekly Arts and entertainment guide for Calaveras and Tuolumne counties