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Local firefighters battle out-of-control blaze in Sierra foothills

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Posted: Saturday, August 24, 2013 6:18 am

In Tuolumne on Friday, hundreds packed their cars, prepared to leave their homes and retreat from the unpredictable flames of the massive Rim Fire just a hillside away.

As many residents fled, adhering to an advisory evacuation warning issued by the Tuolumne Sheriff’s Department, this small town in the Sierra foothills transformed into a war zone.

Planes and helicopters carrying fire retardant circled through a dark haze for hours overhead. Fire engines and police vehicles were all that filled the otherwise desolate streets. And droves of firefighters entered a thick blanket of smoke emanating from a fire that had doubled in size overnight.

“It’s pretty crazy,” said Assistant Chief Steve Seifert of the Liberty Fire District, who’s been battling the blaze since it broke out on Saturday. “This thing is so big, it’s hard to fathom what’s going on.”

Elsewhere in the Sierra foothills, homes had burned. More ground had been lost. And even a group of the county’s elite firefighters couldn’t stop the ravenous flames from engulfing thousands of acres along the western edge of Yosemite National Park.

At daybreak, firefighters checked the information board at a remote base camp in disbelief. Despite 2,000 firefighters from Lodi, Los Angeles, Colorado and elsewhere working 24-hour shifts to combat the blaze, the Rim Fire had gone from 5 percent contained on Wednesday to 2 percent contained on Friday.

In just two days, the fire has quadrupled in size. More than 105,000 acres are now in flames, causing Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency. Some cities are in the fire’s path, and residents are being advised to evacuate.

Firefighters from the Lodi, Liberty and Thornton fire departments and two strike teams from Cosumnes Community Services District Fire Department have been deployed. Even two Lodi police officers assisted with evacuations on Friday.

And in one week, $5.4 million has been spent to battle a blaze that’s growing by the hour.

“Weather, terrain, dry conditions — all those factors that are critical in a fire have come together here,” said incident command spokesman Dennis Godfrey. “This is one of those explosive situations.”

In only a few days, the Rim Fire has become the largest wildfire in California so far this year.

News outlets from throughout the state and around the country are flooding the scene, following convoys of fire engines, police vehicles and forest service trucks over the hills, toward the fiery skies and into the smoky abyss.

Here, a different world exists.

The smell of charred trees fills the air. Ash falls from the sky like rain. And a strong breeze causes everyone to freeze and wonder if the worst is yet to come.

Here, some communities have fled.

Just off a main drag leading into the Yosemite Valley runs a dirt road, the dividing line between a pocket of cabins and a war recently waged. Surrounding the camp are acres of tall incense cedar trees, now black, lifeless figures. Smoke still rises from tiny ash and charcoal chimneys on the ground.

But on the other side of the narrow road, just a few strides from the fire line, the plants are still green and the cabins still stand.

Here is the reward of long shifts and little sleep.

Capt. David Baldwin of the Sacramento City Fire Department hasn’t been home in more than a week, and he expects to battle the Rim Fire for 14 more days. His unit left the Swedes Fire in Oroville, drove through the night and was in action just two hours after arriving.

Like Seifert, Baldwin works the night shift, part of a tactic used here called “backfire.” The idea entails setting controlled fires on the land, so that once the wildfire reaches the line, there’s nothing left for it to burn.

“Fighting fire with fire is essentially what they were doing last night,” Baldwin said.

At times it’s worked, but a strong wind can give the wildfire the lead. Since Aug. 17, it’s been a never-ending game of cat and mouse.

“A fire this size with such a head of steam is really hard to contain,” Baldwin said. “Even though we are making ground, sometimes the fire is burning faster than the ground we’re making.”

So far, only nine structures have been destroyed. But 4,500 structures are still at risk. On Friday, authorities advised Tuolumne residents to evacuate, with the fire only a couple miles away.

From her front yard, Brandi Harris can see smoke billowing on the other side of a nearby hill. She says it’s not time to desert her home yet, but she’s packed her car and ready to leave at a moment’s notice.

“I can’t imagine this town burning down,” she said. “But I packed my clothes, some photo albums, and the rest we’ll just let go.”

On Friday night, authorities expected the Rim Fire to spread north and east through the Tuolumne River Canyon. In Yosemite, the fire stretched east toward Cherry Lake and the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir.

Contact reporter Kristopher Anderson at krisa@lodinews.com.

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