The Rim Fire Incident Command Post in Tuolumne City, a tent city populated with thousands of firefighters and support staff since Aug. 22, is expected to close over the weekend.
David Cooper is commander of the South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
The shut-down, already evident in the increasingly depopulated area between Summerville High School and Tuolumne Veterans Memorial Hall, coincides with a command shift as the fire winds down.
At its peak, the Rim Fire was overseen with a highly specialized and well-funded federal “Type 1” team, commanding some 5,000 firefighters and other experts.
The fire is now being handed off to a “Type 3” team spearheaded by mostly local fire-fighting personnel and resources.
The Type 3 team will command the fire for about two weeks, according to Chris Schow, fire chief for the Stanislaus National Forest. Its members will operate out of the Forest Service’s warehouse on Greenley Road in Sonora and will primarily use local staff and equipment.
David Cooper, who is with the Sierra National Forest most of the year, this week retook command of the operation during the transition. Cooper also led the firefight for the first week with his South Central Sierra Interagency Incident Management Team.
Cooper and his California “Type 2” team “embedded” with the Type 1 team — which hailed from the Southeastern United States — as that team needed local knowledge about the terrain and the climate.
Cooper was in charge during the harrowing days in the first week when the fire swept through tens of thousands of acres in just days, including right over many family campgrounds in the area.
His team includes firefighters from the Stanislaus, Sierra and Sequoia National Forests, Yosemite National Park and a Twain Harte Fire chief, among others.
Many of the team members have been together for more than a decade, Cooper said.
Cooper discussed Tuesday some aspects of the early firefight.
He took risks in sending crews ahead of the fire to form protection lines around Camp Mather, San Jose Family Camp and Camp Tawonga, which all paid off. The camps were ultimately protected as the fire swept around them.
Some places were not so fortunate, like the cabins burned in the Spinning Wheel cluster of cabins off Cherry Lake Road and the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp on Hardin Flat Road.
Cooper described these decisions as a balance of protecting life and property and realism in what can be accomplished in the time frame.
Numerous fire personnel have commented on the overwhelming success of the Rim Fire fight — both in terms of property protection and firefighter safety.
Only 10 injuries have been reported throughout the month-long fire. By comparison, the 1987 Stanislaus Complex Fire, which burned much of the same area, had over 100 injuries and one death.
At its worst, the Rim Fire threatened 4,500 structures. However, just 112 burned in the fire. Of those, 11 were homes, three were commercial-type structures and 98 were assorted “outbuildings.”
The incident command throughout the fire has stuck to the policy of “fight fire where you know you can be successful,” Cooper said.
Cooper served under Incident Commander Mike Wilkins of the Southern Area Blue Team when it took over Aug. 23. He also worked with Incident Commander Jerry McGowan, of the California Interagency Incident Management Team 1, which took over Sept. 4.
Cooper’s team is expected to be gone by Saturday, with the Drew Meadow camp closing by Thursday and the Tuolumne camp closing by Friday.
As of this morning, the Rim Fire has burned 257,134 acres and remained 84 percent contained. The staffing level was 945.
Tuesday, the Burned Area Emergency Response team, assessing soil damage and the potential for erosion and flooding, announced it had finalized an assessment of the immediate risks of the burn area. The BAER team is expected to get funding Oct. 2 to begin the bulk of its restoration work. The team will post its report publicly at that time.