Blaze now nation’s biggest

Union Democrat staff /

The Rim Fire grew in the past day to 179,481 acres, making it the largest wildfire now burning in the nation, consuming an area larger than San Francisco and Manhattan combined, and it continues to threaten homes, camping areas and popular tourist features.

Firefighting efforts Monday and this morning were focused at the fire's west side - around the North Fork Tuolumne River canyon, Duckwall Mountain and Paper Cabin Ridge - and in the southeast, where the fire is blazing deep into Mariposa County and also into Yosemite National Park.

The number of park acres burned stood this morning at more than 41,620.

As a result of fire danger and, to a greater extent, smoke levels, some areas of the park are closed. Those include Hetch Hetchy and Evergreen roads, the White Wolf lodging area, Crane Flat and Hodgdon Meadow campgrounds and the Hetch Hetchy backpackers' campground. The Merced and Tuolumne sequoia groves are also closed for fire-prevention work.

A main park entry point, Highway 120, from Buck Meadows to Crane Flat, also remains closed.

A sign of improvement overnight: The fire was 20 percent contained, despite its growing perimeter. The fire was 15 percent contained on Monday morning, which was double the containment perimeter Sunday.

Most of the success has been around the Pine Mountain Lake and Groveland area, but lines are also being established throughout the forest.

More resources are being committed each day to beating the fire.

California Gov. Jerry Brown visited Tuolumne City on Monday and was briefed on the Rim Fire by fire officials.

Speaking from the fire camp set up downtown, he promised ongoing resources to fight the blaze. He also discussed continued state support.

"It may even get worse in years to come, but California will be ready for it," Brown said, alluding to predictions of increased future fire activity in the west as a result of climate change.

"The president called me yesterday and expressed his support," Brown added. "Whatever we need, he'll provide."

As Brown visited with firefighters and the media, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced it had authorized federal funds to assist California in battling the Rim Fire.

The state submitted a request for FEMA funding on Aug. 23. The money can now pay for up to 75 percent of the eligible firefighting costs under a grant for "managing, mitigating and controlling" the fire.

Costs eligible for reimbursement by FEMA include expenses incurred for field camps, equipment maintenance, tools and supplies, and "mobilization and demobilization activities."

Cal Fire Director Ken Pimlott, who spoke in Tuolumne City with Brown, called the Rim Fire "very serious" but noted state, local and federal agencies are making headway.

"We've also got almost 3,700 personnel engaged in this firefight from all over California and the nation, and we have support internationally if we need it, with various assets," Pimlott said Monday.

Pimlott said Cal Fire was working to ensure the safety of firefighters battling the blaze.

"We are very cognizant," he said. "There have been very few injuries on this fire. We want to keep it that way, but we also recognize this area on the Stanislaus National Forest has had a history of fatality fires."

Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant said progress in fire containment reflect ground gained in the area around Pine Mountain Lake, most of which had its evacuation notice lifted Saturday.

Bulldozers have cut bare swaths of land along the fire's northwestern flank to prevent its spread to Tuolumne and along the Highway 108 corridor, Berlant said.

The area has also been overlaid with thousands of tons of orange retardant.

Cal Fire officials remain concerned about the Rim Fire's ability to "jump" those containment lines, however.

"This has been an incredibly fast-moving fire," Berlant said, citing dry vegetation and inaccessible terrain as the primary factors behind its quick spread.

Nevertheless, Tuolumne City resident Chris Winters - who was walking his two dogs in Tuolumne Memorial Park at the time of Brown's press conference - said he was confident firefighters would keep the blaze away from residences.

As of Monday morning, he had chosen not to leave his home near Summerville Elementary School when the area was placed under an evacuation advisory.

"Well, it's my choice, and I'm gonna stay," Winters said.

Brown won't be the only politician making appearances in Tuolumne County as a result of the Rim Fire.

Congressman Tom McClintock, R-Elk Grove, plans to meet with fire officials in Tuolumne County today, according to his staff.

His congressional district includes fire-stricken Tuolumne and Mariposa counties, and he receives twice-daily briefings on the Rim Fire from Stanislaus National Forest Supervisor Susan Skalski.

State Sen. Tom Berryhill, R-Twain Harte, who requested Aug. 22 that Brown declare a state of emergency for Tuolumne County, spent Friday, Saturday and Sunday here.

"He has a house in Sugar Pine," said Eileen Ricker, Berryhill spokeswoman. "He's clearly concerned for many reasons … his report back is that people are definitely working hard."

Assemblyman Frank Bigelow, R-O'Neals, has been getting regular updates on the fire from Tuolumne County Supervisor Randy Hanvelt.

Bigelow - a longtime volunteer firefighter - plans to visit within the next several days, according to his chief of staff.

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The Union Democrat
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