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Weekend air quality takes hit

Sawmill Mountain Road resident Matt Chapman stands among the ruins of his burned outbuildings. His home was saved. Maggie Beck / Union Democrat, Copyright 2013.
High winds over the weekend kept firefighters scrambling to maintain containment of the Rim Fire, but worse air quality may have been most noteworthy to Tuolumne and Calaveras county residents.

Total acreage burned was at 253,332 as of this morning — unchanged since Sunday morning — with 80 percent containment, according to Rena Escobedo, public information officer for the fire. 

It was at 246,350 acres going into the weekend, also with 80 percent containment.

On Saturday and Sunday, the fire found unburned fuel sources within the perimeter and, along with back firing and spot fires, brought heavier smoke, leading to concern from residents that the fire fight wasn’t going well. 

Indeed, dozens of spot fires — or fires that jump containment lines — sparked over the weekend throughout the fire area, mostly in the southeast, along Tioga Road. All remained relatively small, the biggest being one acre, according to Escobedo. 

Firefighters faced warm, extremely dry conditions and shifting winds. Also, a continued problem has been pockets of fuel within the fire perimeter which increase the potential for spot fires. 

“If fire hits a pocket of fuel, it will burn more intensely and up into the canopy, where wind can grab it and throw it,” Escobedo said. 

But crews overall got a “good handle” on the spot fires over the weekend and winds are forecast to be less gusty today, according to Escobedo. 

They lit back fires all through the weekend to eliminate the threat of unburned fuels. This included a redoubled effort on the northwestern line of the fire, along the Clavey River, adding to heavy smoke for much of Tuolumne and Calaveras counties. 

On Saturday, much of Tuolumne County and eastern Calaveras County were in the “unhealthy” category of air quality — meaning poor air quality could impact everyone, not just sensitive groups — according to the hourly Air Quality Index managed by the Environmental Protection Agency, shown on a map of California. 

Today, a mix of “moderate” and “unhealthy for sensitive groups” air quality is forecast in both counties according to the EPA, but the Forest Service this morning said stagnate air over the fire area will cause hazy conditions and poor air quality. 

“Moderate” means only those extremely sensitive to air quality should feel effects, while “unhealthy for sensitive groups” cautions groups such as children, the elderly and those with illness to avoid outdoors. 

This morning, Tuolumne County was overall rated on the healthier end of the “moderate” condition. 

Calaveras County is not recognized specifically on the Air Quality Index, but Calaveras County Air Pollution Control District issued its fourth wildfire smoke warning on Friday continuing to warn of poor air quality. 

The warning recommended following the “five-mile visibility standard” which is to avoid rigorous outdoor activity when area visibility is less than five miles. 

No new structures were reported burned over the weekend, but residents continued to request escort into the fire area to see their homes as they did all last week. 

The number of lost structures still stood at 111 this morning — 11 residences, three commercial buildings and 97 outbuildings, including several camp tent cabins. 

Sawmill Mountain Road resident Matt Chapman lost several outbuildings, but not his home, and was able to visit the wreckage Sunday. 

He said “living out here in the forest it is not a question of if but a question of when” a devastating fire like this will happen.

A fire started near Long Barn that burned about four acres Sunday afternoon before being contained. It is not considered a spot fire from the Rim Fire and its cause is still under investigation. 

On Friday, four relatively small fires also sparked in the Mother Lode, including a 1.5-acre vegetation fire in Copperopolis caused by a lawnmower. 

The Rim Fire was determined to be caused by a hunter’s illegal campfire. The hunter has been identified but not arrested and no name has been released. 

Total personnel fighting the fire this morning was 3,104, reduced from 3,634 Friday. 

Total cost has reached $96.2 million and nine injuries have been reported. 

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