The Rim Fire grew unabated Thursday and this morning to some 105,620 acres and posed an increasing threat to the township of Tuolumne, about five miles north of the communities of Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake, where intense fire suppression efforts earlier this week were focused.
No evacuation had been called for Tuolumne as of this morning. However, it looked imminent Thursday as a fire staging area was set up by the Memorial Hall in Tuolumne, as livestock owners were urged to move their animals out of the area, and as Tuolumne County Transit employees laid plans to move people out of the township should the situation worsen over the weekend.
The fire was moving up Basin Creek, which is just east of Tuolumne and drains into the Tuolumne River just north of Pine Mountain Lake. It was also creeping up on Duckwall Mountain, a prominent peak on the southeastern Sonora skyline.
In the east, it has burned past Camp Mather and is at Lake Eleanor in Yosemite National Park.
Forest Service air attack planes and helicopters this morning planned to hammer the Basin Creek canyon walls with retardant to slow the fire’s northward progress.
“They are talking about a defense of Tuolumne City … in a substantial way,” said Bjorn Fredrickson, fire information officer at the Incident Command Center.
Much of the damage from the week-old fire can be described by the numbers:
• The estimated acreage of the fire grew to 105,620 overnight, up from 53,000 on Thursday morning. It’s by far the largest active fire in California and the fifth largest burning in the U.S. It was spreading in all directions, but with a more north and west emphasis.
The fire thus far has burned 16 structures, including four homes and 12 outbuildings. About 4,500 homes are considered “threatened,” most near Groveland.
• More than 2,011 personnel are assigned to the fire in addition to several airplanes and nine helicopters.
• Suppression costs so far have totalled $5.4 million.
State of emergency
Gov. Jerry Brown on Thursday afternoon declared a state of emergency in Tuolumne County, acting on a request by county leaders.
The declaration opens the door to more firefighting resources on the front line.
It can also lead to state and federal aid for response activities, like evacuation centers and loss of property.
Also late Thursday, Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski signed an order closing almost all of the Groveland Ranger District. The order is in effect until the fire is deemed extinguished.
• “going into or being upon any National Forest System land within in the Rim Fire Closure Area.” (See map at www.uniondemocrat.com.)
• being on any Forest System Road within the Rim Fire Closure Area, or on Road 1N07 from Forest Road 1N98 to the Rim Fire Boundary.
People with U.S. Forest Service permits and emergency personnel are exempted.
Violators face fines $5,000 and/or face jail time of six months, according to the order.
In the hot seat
Most of the groundwork in the fire response is being handled in two places: The county Office of Emergency Services has set up a response center off Striker Court in Sonora, and the U.S. Forest Service has established an Incident Command Post off Cherry Lake Road.
The Incident Command Post in Drew Meadow is staffed with firefighting personnel from throughout the state and country. It’s also staffed with experts in meteorology and fire behavior.
They studied maps and crunched numbers Thursday to track the fire’s progress and to forecast its direction.
“Generally, we have a pretty good idea the fire is going to continue to the north and the west and some to the east,” Gary Jarvis, a fire behavior analyst assigned to the fire, said Thursday afternoon.
Jarvis cautioned that fuels — grasses, brush and trees — in the rugged terrain are extremely dry.
“As long as it has fuel in front of it, the fire is going to continue to burn,” he said.
To determine the fire’s projected path, Jarvis factors in the area’s topography and moisture levels of vegetation combined with the weather forecast.
“Today and tomorrow, there are no thunderstorms predicted, so that’s the good thing,” incident meteorologist Matt Mehle said Thursday.
“The bad thing is we still have a bit of instability over the area.”
Instability, Mehle said, refers to an unstable air mass that causes giant plumes of smoke and ash to form.
He said that, earlier in the week, such pyrocumulus clouds formed over the fire produced their own lightning, rain and wind.
Halfway across the county Thursday, the OES response center, headed by the County Administrator’s Office, was humming with activity.
Volunteers answered a steady stream of phone calls at the front desk, passing on the latest fire info.
Small groups of men and women gathered in an open meeting room, some hunched over computers, others deep in conversation and some dropping in for a quick word before heading back out in one of many emergency vehicles parked on Striker Court.
The center shifted to a 24-hour-a-day operation Thursday as the fire’s scope grew, and it’s serving as a communications clearinghouse for all the government agencies and aid organizations involved in the fire response.
Meeting regularly are representatives from fire and police departments, aid organizations, and county, state and federal agencies. They share ideas for supporting the work on the front lines, and for helping victims.
Need more shelter space? Is there a new evacuation order? How about more law enforcement for a developing situation? That’s where those questions will be asked and answered.
“We get the information, and we get it to the people that need it,” Tuolumne County Sheriff’s Sgt. Scott Johnson said.
Traci Riggs, the county’s emergency coordinator, said their main role is to pull all of the involved agencies together to support the first responders and the others who are out there digging the lines and knocking on the doors.
“They’re calling us from the Incident Command Post, and we’re reacting,” Riggs said.
The coordination center could get more crowded as the fire grows and more agencies get involved.
On Thursday, the city and county of San Francisco declared its own state of emergency because much of San Francisco’s power and water infrastructure is in southern Tuolumne County.
The local Red Cross is bracing for more evacuations as the Rim Fire grows.
Last night, an arrangement was updated between the Red Cross and the Mother Lode Fairgrounds allowing the Red Cross to take over more of the Sonora fairground’s buildings.
Some evacuees are now sheltered in the John Muir building, which has easier handicap access, with the bulk remaining in the Manzanita building.
Most of the evacuees come from the Pine Mountain Lake area and also the Buck Meadows area.
Ranchers were advised to begin moving or preparing to move their livestock from the Tuolumne area, in advance of possible future evacuations due to the Rim Fire.
No evacuation centers are planned to open in Tuolumne if the city must be evacuated, as the Mother Lode Fairgrounds can hold up to 1,000 people, Johnson said.