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California Rim fire grows to nearly 150,000 acres, 15 percent contained

Jeff Jardine
Modesto Bee
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TUOLUMNE CITY — UPDATE: Updated stats from CalFire this morning show the blaze at 149,780 acres. Firefighters are gaining some ground: the fire is 15 percent contained. The fire has grown to be the 13th largest in state history, according to Daniel Berlant, spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.

A group of neighbors assembled Sunday afternoon in front of Susan Starr's home on Canyon Drive, watching while planes and helicopters assaulted the Rim fire a few miles away as it tried to scale Paper Cabin Ridge.

If the crews win — if the bulldozer lines atop the ridge and the aerial assault stop the flames there — these residents will breathe easier.

If not, resident and former firefighter Mike Sanders said, "I've got a 300-gallon (per minute) pump. I'm going to stay here and ride it out. I wouldn't miss this for anything."

Tuolumne City residents are hoping for the best while bracing for the worst, just as did people in Groveland and Pine Mountain Lake until their evacuation orders were lifted Saturday.

The Rim fire has consumed 143,980 acres since it began Aug. 17 in the Clavey River canyon and quickly jumped the Tuolumne River. It is only about 3,000 acres shy of the Stanislaus National Forest's largest fire on record — the Stanislaus Complex in 1987 — and with only 7 percent containment will certainly surpass it.

More than 3,400 firefighters and other personnel are trying to stop the blaze.

Bulldozer crews cut a wide swath along Paper Cabin Ridge on Saturday — five bulldozer blades in width and visible to the naked eye from the north rim of Tuolumne River's north fork canyon. The fire attacked the ridge in the late afternoon, but the line appeared to hold as the aircraft pounded away with retardant and water.

"The lines are a very effective way of dealing with the fire under our terms," fire spokesman Dick Fleishman said. "The fire needs fuel, and the only way to stop it is to break the fuel cycle."

Should it cross the ridge and burn its way down to Hunter Creek, the north fork canyon would become its next target. Residents of Canyon and Sunrise drives, though, have done this before.

"Once, (authorities) came by with bullhorns, yelling, 'You must leave. You must leave,' " Starr said.

And during the 1987 fire, flames crossed the north fork canyon before being extinguished when they reached Buchanan Road, the main road into the canyon.

"We didn't leave in '87, either," resident Rick Jerome said.

Sunday, though, officials worried about high winds — 25 mph or better — from the southwest that would fan the flames. Evacuation advisories remain in effect for Tuolumne City, the Ponderosa Hills, Soulsbyville and other communities along the Highway 108 corridot. The fire continued to move in a northeasterly direction toward Duckwall Mountain on Sunday.

On the fire's east side, crews are trying to stop it from reaching Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, which is the main power and water source for the city and county of San Francisco and is under a state of emergency.

The fire has burned 15,000 acres of Yosemite National Park. Much of that acreage burned in the 1996 Ackerson fire or from prescribed burns, park spokesman Tom Medema said.

Park officials evacuated White Wolf Lodge and the White Wolf Campgrounds because of the intense smoke, he said. Meanwhile, campgrounds at Yosemite Creek and Tamarack Flat weren't evacuated, but campers won't be allowed in when spaces become available until after the smoke subsides, he said.

"There's no imminent threat," Medema said.

Back in Tuolumne City, fire engines lined the park and were positioned strategically throughout the town in the event that the fire does head that way. And an incident command base took shape on the former West Side Lumber Co. property, now owned by the Tuolumne Band of Me-Wuk Indians.

In Sonora, retailers including Wal-Mart, Big Lots and Staples closed for a second-straight day because of the smoke. Orchard Supply Hardware and Lowe's both reportedly sold out of air purifiers, and Orchard's manager drove to Modesto to get more.

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