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Inferno now threatening 5,500 homes

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Residents of Pine Mountain Lake have been issued an advisory evacuation warning as the Rim Fire crackles and burns just three miles outside the community. A crew from the Manteca Fire Department ha...

DAVID WILKINSON/Pine Mountain Lake News/

POSTED August 24, 2013 2:20 a.m.

Ripon Fire Chief Dennis Bitters has been to the fire line, where 7-foot flames have scorched an area of the Mother Lode nearly as large as the city of San Francisco.

The Rim Fire is ugly, he says, and wildly unpredictable, threatening to leave its mark in California state history books. It has also crossed into iconic Yosemite National Park.

“A lot of the fire line is along the roadways,” said Bitters, Ripon fire chief and the operational coordinator for San Joaquin County fire departments.

“When I was there on Monday, I was right on (State Route) 120, just past Buck Meadows. The fire line was on 120 and it was jumping across while I was there.”

The Rim Fire continues to spread, swelling in size as it feeds on brush, pine needles and trees. It covers 125,620 acres, according to a Cal Fire tweet Friday evening, and threatens 5,500 homes. Communities have been evacuated and a thunderhead created by the inferno dominates the Mother Lode skyline.

Those living in Jamestown can see the plume of smoke cresting the hilltops, but are in no immediate danger. By Friday afternoon, residents in Tuolumne City and Ponderosa Hills were asked to evacuate their homes.

The fire already ranks among the top-20  largest wildland fires in California history, according to figures released by Cal Fire.

On Friday, it made its first real offensive on  Yosemite National Park, crossing into its boundaries. For now, the fire is contained in a remote area of the park, according to the U.S. Forest Service. The valley floor is unaffected and the park remains open.

Governor Jerry Brown has declared a state of emergency, largely because firefighting crews from across the region struggle to contain the blaze. At press time, only 5 percent of the Rim Fire had been contained.

“This is a huge fire, by any terms,” said Manteca Battalion Chief David Marques, who has two crews deployed to the Gold Country. “My most recent information is that it’s only (5) percent contained, which is nothing, and it continues to grow.

“The terrain is extremely steep, so it’s difficult for crews to get to and extinguish. Being that it’s only (5) percent and it’s growing, it’s only going to get bigger and bigger.”

• • •

San Joaquin fire

rallies against Rim

San Joaquin County strike teams were dispatched to the Rim Fire on Wednesday and Thursday evening, from staging posts in the Home Depot and Wendy’s parking lots.

Crews from Manteca-Lathrop, Linden, Clements and Liberty will relieve their co-workers today, Bitters said. The crew coming home was originally dispatched to the Bridges Fire in Calaveras County Sunday and then reallocated to the Rim Fire near the west entrance of Yosemite National Park.

That team includes Manteca-Lathrop Fire Chief Gene Neely.

“That Type-3 (wildland) team has been in the smoke the entire time, where they can’t see 30 feet past the front of their vehicle,” Bitters said. “They’ve not only been working in it, but sleeping in it too.

“After that much time, for the health and well-being of our firefighters, we need to get them out of there and get them relief.

“They’re getting pretty irritable. Our guys are pretty beat, so they’re coming home. The engine will stay and we’ll trade out the crews.”

Strike teams are made up of five fire companies with four members each. Typically, Bitters says, each fire department has strike-team certified firefighters on staff. Strike-team members have passed demanding physical examinations and received specific certifications.

Bitters has been charged with coordinating multi-department efforts for the last 12 years. It’s his job to work with local fire chiefs to make sure the county provides adequate resources to multiple-alarm fires, while not depleting  individual fire houses.

The Rim Fire has been a test of his training – and staffing levels.

Firefighters from San Joaquin County are but a small percentage of the 2,011 called into action.

“The fire is just running … just burning,” Bitters said. “It’s running so fast and with the weather conditions the way they are, it just takes off. If you’re going to draw a line in the sand and say ‘This is where we’ll fight it,’ you have to get far enough ahead of it. To do that, though, you’re leaving a lot of green – a lot of fuel – in the middle.

“The problem now, for us and our departments, we’re pretty well tapped.”

• • •

Firefighters have

nowhere to hide

Bitters described the scene at staging posts near the fire line as “organized chaos.”

Personnel from all corners of the map crowd the area, waiting for their orders.

Once they’re finally deployed, Bitters says there is no hiding from the flames. He spoke with crew members Friday morning who reported battling flames 5- to 7-feet long. “They see a lot of fire and feel a lot of heat,” Bitters said. “They’re pretty much in it the whole time. There’s nowhere to hide for them.”

Crews from the Manteca Fire Department were sent to Tuolumne City and Pine Mountain Lake, and tasked with safe-guarding structures.

The team that left Thursday evening – Travis Gooch, Wes Chamberlain, Derek Leong and Dennis Hatfield – arrived in Tuolumne City late last night, Marques said. They spent the night in the engine – sleeping in their seats – and reported for work at 8 o’clock Friday morning.

The crew in Pine Mountain Lake is on a 24-hour work cycle, scouting structures and cutting back foliage. Residents there have been given an advisory evacuation warning as the fire crackles and roars just three miles outside of town.

Trucks fill the intersections and  driveways of homes, said Pine Mountain Lake publishing editor David Wilkinson, creating a ring of protection around the gated community.

Wilkinson, who operates Groveland’s social media pages and has served as a resource to outside agencies,  battles mixed emotions.

There is a sense of gratitude and safety that accompanies the sight of firefighting crews standing watch, but his home lies between them and the encroaching Rim Fire.

“You don’t sleep sound at night, waiting for the phone call or knock on the door saying you have to go,” Wilkinson said. “They’re really concerned about it running up river gorges, but the firefighters are doing an amazing job. We can’t begin to say how grateful we are to them … to have them here. They have made a stand around the homes.”

No thanks are needed, Bitters said.

“I’ve been a firefighter for 31 years and I still don’t understand it. There is something about us. I tell my people that you have to love people. You can’t fake that,” he added. “You’ll see people at their worst and they expect you to come when it’s ugly and make things better.

“These guys,” he said of his strike teams, “they love to do this. … They want to be the ones to make it better.”

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