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Beloved Bay Area camp destroyed by Yosemite blaze; Rim Fire slows

A firefighter surveys the smoldering ruins of the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp near Groveland, California, on Monday, Aug. 26, 2013. Photo: Don Bartletti/Los Angeles Times/MCT

SAN JOSE, Calif. — Firefighters finally began to get a handle on the huge Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, but not before the blaze destroyed one popular San Francisco Bay Area family camp, and the cost of the fire continued to rise.

Berkeley officials said the fire burned down the city’s popular high Sierra camp on Aug. 25. San Jose canceled the rest of its season just miles away, after the blaze scorched about a dozen cabins.

News of the destruction brought the fire home for generations of Bay Area campgoers.

“Our family is feeling pretty devastated because we have so many happy memories there, and it was a place we always look forward to returning,” said David Kojan. He is one of many Berkeley natives who cherished his visits. He would go with his wife and two young sons to the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp just west of Yosemite.

A Mile Away From Reservoir

The Rim Fire had grown to about 160,000 acres late on Aug. 26 after eating up another 27,000 acres over 36 hours. It crept within a mile of the source of the Hetch Hetchy water system. But the one encouraging sign was that the blaze had spread twice as quickly a week ago. The fire containment on Monday tripled to 20 percent.

Still, the stubborn fire became the biggest active wildfire in the United States. It is the 11th-largest in the state’s recorded history, which dates back 81 years.

As the cost of the fire topped $20 million, President Barack Obama pledged federal money in a call to Gov. Jerry Brown. Brown visited Monday with some of the firefighters battling the biggest of California’s nearly dozen major wildfires. The fires are burning from Eureka to Los Angeles, stretching money in peak wildfire season. Brown said “the firefighters have a real challenge on their hands” but promised to “get it done” with the money and manpower available.

“Whatever it takes, I’m going to make sure the resources are deployed,” Brown said.

On Monday, the Rim Fire moved within a mile of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite. Hetch Hetchy is the source of water for 2.6 million people living in the Bay Area. Most of the infrastructure is fire-resistant. It has underground steel pipes and the O’Shaughnessy Dam is made of concrete. But officials were worried that ash would dirty the water.

Slow But Sure Progress

The reservoir is already just about full. Crews have built up several months of back-up water supply, said Charles Sheehan. He is a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The utility also sped up its transfer of water from Yosemite to 302 million gallons a day. The water was moved to other reservoirs in hopes of building up an even bigger supply.

The fire has not affected water quality yet, Sheehan said. But if it does get contaminated and the back-up supply is exhausted, the utility can buy water from other agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District.

“There would be no change in water quality and no interruption in service,” Sheehan said. It was unclear how buying extra water could affect customers’ water bills, he said.

Containment of the Rim Fire surged. Dirt lines dug by firefighters around the edge and constant air drops of water and material to put out flames finally started to pay off.

“Slowly but surely, we are making progress,” said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.

A Camp In Ruins

But it was too late to save the city-run Berkeley Tuolumne camp just west of Yosemite. It first opened 91 years ago for $1 a day and 60 cents for children. Famed architect Bernard Maybeck was one of the locals dispatched to the area to finish the site, news reports at the time said.

The fire burned most of the 80 buildings, including 72 tent cabins.

Crews were able to save many historical items such as documents and photographs. But it was of little comfort to local families.

Stephanie Agnew, a Berkeley woman, said her family was "heartbroken." She started going to the camp six years ago when her son was 3. “How do you ever get back what you had there?” she said Monday. “It was in the most beautiful setting.”

The San Jose-run Family Camp east of Groveland saw 14 of its 67 tents destroyed. On Monday, the city canceled the rest of its camping season, which was set to last through October. Two ATVs, water well infrastructure and one building were also reduced to ashes.

The Rim Fire continued to threaten 4,500 homes in rural Tuolumne County. It already destroyed 23 structures since it fire started on Aug. 17. A small section of the Yosemite back country on the western edge of the park also burned, but tourist destinations remained open.

About 3,700 firefighters, including crews from the Bay Area, were battling the blaze. Two have been injured. Smoke from the blaze drifted as far away as Lake Tahoe and Reno. The cause of the fire was still being investigated.

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