By GLENN KAHL
& GOSIA WOZNIACKI
BUCK MEADOWS — An out-of-control forest fire forced the closure of Highway 120 and was threatening 2,500 structures late Wednesday including the community of Pine Mountain Lake and its 2,800 residents.
Five San Joaquin County strike teams composed of firefighters and equipment from agencies in Manteca, Stockton, Lodi, Woodbridge, and Tracy departed the Home Depot parking lot in Manteca at 5:30 p.m. en route to the fire some 75 miles away. The Lathrop-Manteca Fire Department already was at the fire. Lathrop Manteca Fire Chief Gene Neeley and firefighters with Engine 30 were dispatched to the Bridges Fire in Calaveras County near Vallecito on Sunday before being diverted to the Rim Fire near the western entrance to Yosemite National Park.
Only 5 percent of the 25 square-mile fire was contained. That’s an area more than twice the size of urbanized Manteca. The fire is among the nation’s top firefighting priorities, according to the National Interagency Fire Center in Boise, Idaho. There are more than 50 active, large wildfires dotting the West.
Highway 120 is closed at the north junction of Highway 49 to six miles west of the park boundary.
The remote blaze in Stanislaus National Forest is, threatening homes, hotels and camp buildings.
The fire has led to the voluntary evacuation of the private gated summer community of Pine Mountain Lake as well as several organized camps, at least two campgrounds and dozens of other private homes. Two residences and seven outbuildings have been destroyed.
“This is typically a very busy time for us until Labor Day, so it’s definitely affecting business not having the traffic come through to Yosemite,” said Britney Sorsdahl, a manager at the Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland, a community of about 600 about five miles from the fire.
The board of supervisors in Tuolumne County held an emergency meeting Wednesday afternoon and voted for a resolution to ask Gov. Jerry Brown to declare a state of emergency and free special funds and resources for the firefight.
The resolution said the fire was “directly threatening various communities and businesses” and “beyond our capabilities.”
Fifty-one major uncontained wildfires are burning throughout the West, according to the center, including in California, Alaska, Arizona, Idaho, Montana, Nevada, Oregon, Utah, Washington and Wyoming. More than 19,000 firefighters were fighting the fires.
But the U.S. Forest Service, the nation’s top wildfire-fighting agency, said Wednesday that it is running out of money to fight wildfires and is diverting $600 million from timber, recreation and other areas to fill the gap. The agency said it had spent $967 million so far this year and was down to $50 million — typically enough to pay for just a few days of fighting fires when the nation is at its top wildfire preparedness level, which went into effect Tuesday. The National Interagency Fire Center raised the wildfire preparedness level on Tuesday to the highest level possible — the first time that has happened in five years.
There have been more than 32,000 fires this year that have burned more than 5,300 square miles.
The Rim Fire comes on the heels of the Power Fire near Beardsley Reservoir that is operated jointly by the South San Joaquin Irrigation District and Oakdale Irrigation District. That fire closed Highway 108 east of Sonora. It was fully contained on Aug. 14.
The strike team that departed Manteca Wednesday was coordinated by Ripon Consolidated Fire Chief Dennis Bitters. Team leader is Scott Arganbright of Tracy Fire. The five engines parked side by side in formation during an orientation.
Bitters explained that the fire is in steep terrain and had been building for the last three to four days. The Ripon chief added that the inversion layer that has kept the fire down in the mornings lifts in the afternoon causing the situation to become even more volatile.
The Manteca firefighters that left for the fire lines on Wednesday included Capt. Keith Scott, Eric “Wolf” George, and firefighters Armando Blanco and Mike Loomis. They are manning the Office of Emergency Services truck housed at the Powers Avenue station. If a second request for aid is sent to Manteca, a city engine will respond, according to Battalion Chief Dave Marques.
The crews left with food and water rations on board that will last them 24 hours until a base camp is set up to accommodate all the firefighters responding from northern and central California
The fire crews were staging at Buck Meadows east of Groveland. The firefighters may have to initially sleep on the ground due to lack of facilities. In addition to structure protection, the crews will be assigned to wild land fires, pressure hose lays, cutting fire breaks and in any other ways they are needed.