Three weeks after the Rim Fire forced many Groveland residents to flee their homes for several days, incident commanders overseeing suppression efforts treated the community to some good news.
Incident Commander Jerry McGowan, of the California Interagency Incident Management Team 1, told roughly 60 people gathered in the gymnasium at Tenaya Elementary School on Wednesday night that he was “sticking with” Sept. 20 as the estimated date when crews will reach 100 percent containment on the third largest wildfire in California’s history.
“I believe we’re on a good path to having it contained by then at this point,” he said.
The massive wildfire burning northeast of Groveland in the Stanislaus National Forest has damaged more than 255,000 acres of land since it began Aug. 17. It was sparked by a hunter who started an illegal campfire in the Jawbone Ridge area.
Roughly 120 miles of containment lines have been constructed by hand crews and bulldozers around the perimeter of the nearly 400-square-mile fire in the past couple weeks.
McGowan also provided a glimmer of hope for those concerned about the damage to the forest.
The Incident Commander said he flew over the burned area in a helicopter three days ago and saw many “green islands,” which are patches of healthy, green trees that were still standing.
“The cool part is not all of this looks like it’s just gone — it’s not,” he said, pointing on a large map to chunks of land in the northern portion of the fire area between Duckwall Mountain and Cherry Lake, a southern section near Crane Flat and on the western side in the Camp Mather area.
After much of the incident management team leaves when the fire is fully contained, McGowan said people working to restore the damaged land could build fire prevention lines around some of those healthy tree stands.
Not all the information presented at the meeting was positive.
McGowan said residents can still expect heavy smoke in town for at least one or two months after the fire has been fully contained due to logs, tree stumps and snags that will continue to smolder into the winter within the enormous burned area.
“It’s a 250,000 acre fire, so you’re going to be dealing with that smoke for quite awhile,” he said.
At its peak, about 5,000 firefighters and support personnel from various agencies throughout the United States were assigned to the blaze. The cost of the suppression effort alone has exceeded $100 million. Damage to private property has not yet been tallied.
Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski also spoke at the community meeting, where she said law enforcement authorities working with the U.S. Forest Service determined the hunter’s campfire was the cause, but no arrests have been made.
It’s going to be “awhile” before an arrest is made, because investigators are proceeding cautiously, Skalski said.
“You could imagine why at a price tag of $100 million,” she said.
Groveland District Ranger Maggie Dowd capped off the meeting by applauding the community for making it through the tough period several weeks ago.
“I share your pain in terms of what we went through,” said Dowd, who had to evacuate her office and home in town. “We stand together in this community and I thank you for your patience.”
Groveland resident Nick de Porcel attended the meeting and enjoyed being able to interact with firefighters.
“It was good seeing the confidence in the guys working on it and having them explain some of the stuff going on inside the perimeter,” he said.
De Porcel was fishing at Cherry Lake on Aug. 17 when the fire started. He saw the initial plume of smoke while driving home, but said he didn’t think much of it at the time.
“We thought, ‘That will never get to us. Thank God we live in Groveland,’” he said.
De Porcel and his wife, who moved to Pine Mountain Lake in July, evacuated their home for four days after the fire jumped the Tuolumne River and parts of Highway 120 on Aug. 19.
They stayed at the Gunn House in Sonora, and de Porcel would travel to the Groveland subdivision every day to check on their home and retrieve more belongings.
Fortunately, de Porcel’s home is fine. However, he said, most of his favorite fishing areas in the Groveland Ranger District have probably burned.
“I think there is a lot of sadness in terms of the decimation of forest,” he said.