Did anyone learn anything from the Rim Fire that broke out five years ago?

It’s been five years since that blaze started on Aug. 17, 2013. It eventually burned more than 400 square miles of watersheds, destroyed 11 houses and 98 outbuildings, leveled several residential camps, caused 10 injuries, killed hundreds of livestock, and cost $127.3 million to fight.

It’s still the largest fire in 150 years of documented fire history in the Sierra Nevada range.

Some people today say no, it’s clear no lessons were learned from the Rim Fire. Look at the deadly, destructive Butte Fire in 2015, the Detwiler Fire last year, and the devastating Ferguson and Donnell fires this year.

Other people say yes, it’s obvious lessons were learned, especially here in Tuolumne County, where multiple groups of loggers, ranchers, property owners, conservationists and environmentalists now agree on the best ways forward to reduce chances of catastrophic megablazes like the Rim Fire.

More than $26.2 million in grants and other funding has been earmarked by the Stanislaus National Forest for hazard tree removal, fuel reduction, restoration, reforestation and biomass materials removal.

Here’s perspective from people who were out there in the early days of the Rim Fire, people who had flames on their properties, people who lost cattle in the blaze, and people who are debating forest management and the current fires still burning this week.

Fire in the camp

Jerry Baker runs Camp Tuolumne Trails for special needs children on 80 acres off Ferretti Road east of Pine Mountain Lake and Groveland. When the Rim Fire broke out five years ago in the Clavey River drainage, there were no campers on the property because they were between sessions. But Baker had to cancel the rest of his camp season and refund about $75,000 in campers’ fees.

“The part that burned down was wooded areas,” Baker said Friday. “We did not lose any structures. But we’d been open about five years at that point, and the fire started very close to us as the crow flies.”

The camp was threatened, and there were 80 firefighters at the camp, which has multiple structures, including a great hall building. Five to six acres of camp woodland burned, due to backfiring and direct fire, Baker said.

“We were there through the whole thing,” Baker said. “From the first days, we watched it come down the hill to the Tuolumne River and watched it explode several days in. We had firefighters in the camp, but it was obvious to me there was no way anybody on the ground was going to make a dent in that fire. It was too big.”

Big jet

Baker said the real lesson he learned in the Rim Fire was when he and the fire crews expected the blaze to burn through the camp property and take all the trees. A DC 10 retardant tanker unexpectedly roared in to make a drop on a nearby ridge.

“We had pretty given up on it, expecting it to burn through,” Baker said. “In comes the DC 10, right along the ridge, putting the fire down to where the smaller planes had a chance. The flames were hundreds of feet tall, and the fire just laid down on itself. The smaller planes and helicopters were able to take care of it.”

The DC 10 made a dozen more runs on it that day and the next day, Baker said. The big jet can deliver 12,000 gallons of retardant, 10 times more than a single S-2T tanker plane like the ones that fly out of Columbia Air Attack.

The DC 10’s ability near Camp Tuolumne Trails during the Rim Fire convinced Baker the state needs more large tanker retardant planes.

“We chose to let that Rime Fire get out of control, due to conscious and unconscious decisions at the leadership level, deciding who was in charge,” Baker said. “In the first few days we had to the chance to keep the Rim Fire contained. They didn’t bring in the VLAT (Very Large Air Tanker) until the fire was already a conflagration.”

Petition

It appears that fire commanders these days wait, as a matter of policy, until a fire is out of control before they bring in serious resources, Baker said.

Baker now has a petition on the website change.org, addressed to Congress, Governor Jerry Brown and state legislators, calling for a firefighting plan he calls “Day One Containment.”

“We have to re-strategize how we look at fighting fires.” Baker said. “We need to have maybe 10 times the large tankers, the DC 10s and 747s, that we have today. They need to be scattered around the Central Valley so they can attack a fire in the initial minutes or hours, not the initial days or weeks. The goal is to contain the fire in the first day, day one containment.”

Baker posted his petition a week ago and as of Friday afternoon more than 50 people had signed it online.

Shirley Haliwell said in a post this week on the petition page, “We are signing because we live in Tuolumne County and have seen this lack of response too many times. California needs to take action it is no longer ok to sit back and do nothing.”

Fire on the ranch

Shaun Crook is a Sonora businessman with experience in timber and real estate who is Tuolumne County Farm Bureau president and a vice president with the California Farm Bureau Federation. His uncle, Stuart Crook, lost a cabin dating to the 1880s and a hundred head of cattle when the Rim Fire burned over the Crook family’s 500-acre Meyers Ranch near Jawbone Ridge.

“It was a devastating loss to the herd, financially and emotionally,” Shaun Crook said Friday. He declined to say how much the cattle lost in the Rim Fire were worth. “It’s taken five years to get the herd back to where it was.”

In the immediate aftermath, the Crooks harvested all the timber killed in the fire and started replanting and reseeding. Over the next two years they rebuilt fences and rebuilt the ranch’s water system and rebuilt the cabin that burned.

“It will never be the same” Shaun Crook said. “But we’ve done our best to repair our property and try to go on.”

Solutions

Earlier Friday, Crook attended a meeting of Yosemite-Stanislaus Solutions, one of the local collaborative groups trying to help the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, the National Park Service and private land managers with forest management, watershed health and Rim Fire recovery.

“What some people may have learned on a local level is that we have got to manage the forest and we have got to be proactive,” Shaun Crook said. “We need to quit talking. We need to be actively logging and grazing. We need a fundamental change in the way we view forest management. If we harvest more trees, we can take care of the understory.”

More funding from Congress for aggressive forest thinning and prescribed burns is not necessary, Crook said. Private companies, including timber giant Sierra Pacific Industries, have shown they manage forest lands and be profitable without funding from Congress.

“Many fires stop when they get to private lands,” Crook said. “They have a model that works. We just need to replicate it on public lands. They have been able to show profit and benefit the environment with their management strategies.”

Fire on the range

According to the Stanislaus National Forest, the Rim Fire burn area impacted 15 active grazing allotments, totaling more than 280 square miles inside the fire perimeter and more than 110 square miles adjacent to the southeast edge of the fire perimeter.

Tim Erickson, whose family has been raising cattle for five generation in La Grange and the Groveland area, had cattle on one of those grazing allotments when the Rim Fire broke out.

“We had cattle all on both sides of 120, at Hazel Green and Ackerson Meadow, Jawbone and Cherry Valley, probably close to 500 cows,” Erickson said Friday. “We knew about it right away, it was over by the Clavey River and Bull Meadow. Some guy was down there camping and a fire got away from him and it burned up the hill there. I was told by Cal Fire some Cal Fire guys were sent home. Instead of 200 acres it burned 200,000 acres.”

Erickson said he and his hands saved most their cattle but they lost around 50 head to the Rim Fire. He said the first few days and weeks of the Rim Fire were chaotic.

He and his son Dan Erickson and their employees were right in the midst of it all.

“When it was burning hot we wouldn’t get in there,” Erickson said. “The cattle would get in the meadows, the fire would burn around them, then we could get them out.”

Erickson said watching the Rim Fire burn up 80 percent of the local forest grazing range was frustrating.

The next year they weren’t going to let ranchers go back on any of it. That year they had to ship a lot of cattle up to Oregon even though there was plenty of feed for them in the Rim Fire burn. After a fire there’s excellent grazing the following spring, Erickson said.

More fire

The Ericksons had about 125 cattle on the west side of Pilot Ridge in recent weeks as the giant Ferguson Fire in and near Yosemite burned north into Tuolumne County. They didn’t have to move the cattle.

They usually move them a little higher than Cliff House and Rainbow Pool. Tim Erickson said Dan Erickson waited on pushing the cows a little higher until after backfiring operations on Pilot Ridge.

Asked if there are any lessons learned from the Rim Fire, Erickson talked about how logging nearly ceased 35 years ago because of all the environmental groups.

He said a misguided thinning project helped fuel another fire called the Stanislaus Complex that burned more than 145,000 acres and contributed to one firefighter death in August 1987.

“They cut a lot of trees, little thin ones, and left them on the ground, it makes a lot of kindling,” Erickson said. “Years ago, they used to just light fires every fall, burn the undergrowth and it wouldn’t bother the trees. It would be good for the forest to clean out that stuff.”

Five years after the Rim Fire, deep in some parts of the burn a lot of the fire-killed standing trees are now falling, they’re criss-crossed everywhere, and they’re going to make more kindling for another bad fire in the same area.

“These days they can’t put the fires out,” Erickson said. “It’s too hot. They’ve already lost lives this summer.”

Ranchers recover

Ranchers have been grazing cattle in the Sierra Nevada since before the Forest Service and other federal agencies formed more than a century ago.

The Stanislaus National Forest was created in 1905, and grazing has been permitted in parts of the forest since then.

Other local ranch families were impacted by the Rim Fire. Country Cowboy Church, out on Peaceful Valley Road, has many ranchers among their congregation who had to rush out to try to save their livestock and infrastructure that was threatened by the fire.

“We saw firsthand ranchers weeping while sharing stories of their livestock that have died or that had to be put down due to burns, miles of fence and structures lost,” Leslie Hunt, business administrator for Country Cowboy Church, said Friday. “We wanted to do anything we could to assist the ranchers and offered up trailers to haul livestock, labor to rebuild and support them.”

The church organized a Rim Fire Ranchers Relief benefit at Mother Lode Fairgrounds. The event included raffles, an auction, sponsor tables, full tri-tip dinners and entertainment with about 1,000 people in attendance.

Hunt said Friday she couldn’t remember how much the benefit raised, but all proceeds from the event were distributed to local ranchers that suffered losses in the Rim Fire.

Hope unfulfilled

After the gigantic Rim Fire, there was widespread hope that lessons learned from the megablaze could be used by the Forest Service, state agencies, and concerned interests to prevent any new, giant conflagrations in the state, but that hope did not turn into reality, John Buckley, executive director for Central Sierra Environmental Resource Center in Twain Harte, said Friday.

Buckley listed out the reasons.

Since the 2013 Rim Fire, the King Fire in El Dorado County burned 98,000 acres of forest in autumn 2014. The Butte Fire killed two civilians, burned up hundreds of homes and scorched more than 70,000 acres in 2015. Last year, the Detwiler Fire burned more than 81,000 acres and destroyed 63 homes, one commercial building and 67 other structures and the Railroad Fire burned 12,000 acres at the south end of Yosemite.

“The 96,000-acre Ferguson Fire and the 30,000-acre Donnell Fire have burned locally this year,” Buckley said. “Almost all of these large fires have killed the majority of trees across vast areas of forest. They’ve degraded watersheds, often consumed residences, and some have resulted in deaths of firefighters or residents.”

Buckley is active with Yosemite-Stanislaus Solutions and other collaborative groups seeking ways to reduce catastrophic forest fires and watershed damage. Despite broad local consensus about the need for the Forest Service to greatly increase the pace and scale of thinning logging and prescribed burn treatments, the amount of on-the-ground projects has not increased in any meaningful way, Buckley said Friday.

“Despite far stronger agreement that the widespread use of prescribed burning is pivotally needed, the amount of acreage that is intentionally lit with strategically place burns is still only a tiny fraction of what is needed,” Buckley said.

If public agencies and political decision-makers were being graded on what actually has been accomplished since the Rim Fire rather than the good rhetoric that’s been shared, they may not be flunking, but the grade they deserve would definitely be low, Buckley said.

That deserved low grade is due in part to insufficient agency staffing and insufficient funding for the Forest Service, Buckley said, in particular to do the huge amount of needed work.

Contact Guy McCarthy at gmccarthy@uniondemocrat.com or 588-4585. Follow him on Twitter at @GuyMcCarthy.

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