A photograph taken at the site of the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp on Aug. 28, three days after the Rim Fire swept through it. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
A photograph taken at the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in August days after the devastating Rim Fire swept through it. Photo: U.S. Forest Service
A photograph taken at the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in August days after the devastating Rim Fire swept through it. Photo: U.S. Forest Service

“The dogwoods are in bloom.”

After last August’s Rim Fire wiped out Berkeley’s Tuolumne Camp in the Sierra, that announcement at a recent gathering for campers drew a round of applause. As did the declaration by Berkeley Mayor Tom Bates that, “We’re going to do everything we can do, humanly possible… and beyond humanly possible, to rebuild that camp.”

But, despite the hopeful signs of spring in the fire zone, and the commitment of local officials, it will be 2018 at least before Berkeley’s much-loved family summer camp can be rebuilt.

California poppies along the south facing slopes above the Tuolumne Wild and Scenic River on March 21, 2014. Photo: Dusty Vaughn, USFS

Scott Ferris, director of Berkeley’s parks department, updated the Tuolumne camper community at a gathering at Berkeley’s Freight & Salvage Coffeehouse last month. (A 1.5-hour video of the evening, with a mix of information and performances, can be seen on the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp Facebook page.)

Read on for a summary of the state of the camp and its surroundings, as reported at the gathering.

Signs of spring are enhanced after the fire

Lupines and burned trees from Forest Road 1S30 near Spinning Wheel Ranch on April 30, 2014. Photo: Dusty Vaughn, USFS

Patrick Koepele, director of the Tuolumne River Trust, shared photos of the Rim Fire region. While one looked like a lava field and another showed black columns of tree trunks, other photos captured incredible displays of spring wildflowers, typical after a forest fire.

“We’ve seen wildflower blooms like we hadn’t seen in years, followed by hummingbirds and other pollinators,” Koepele said.

He also showed Rainbow Pool, 6 miles west of camp and downstream, the white water of the waterfall blackened by soil runoff from the fire zone. As bad as that sounds, Koepele pointed out that this year’s drought had spared the region the big landslides that could have occurred.

Rainbow Pool with mud and ash in the water, immediately after approximately 2-2.5 inches of rain, on Feb. 2, 2014. Photo: Dusty Vaughn, USFS

Areas still closed: dead trees are a liability

This section of Hardin Flat Road, a mile or more east of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, shown on Sept. 11, 2013, burned particularly hot in the August Rim Fire. Photo: Tanya Allen

Hardin Flat Road, which leads from Highway 120 to the camp, is closed a half-mile before the camp’s entrance, coming from the west, Ferris said. The bridge on Hardin Flat that crosses the Tuolumne River just outside the camp’s dirt parking lot was damaged in the fire, he added. Beams under the bridge, as well as the pedestrian walkway, burned.

Tuolumne County is planning to rebuild the bridge in 2016, said Duke York, the county’s deputy director of roads. The new bridge will be wider and “not a wooden bridge,” he said. The old bridge is still open to limited traffic but, since the road is closed, it’s effectively off limits.

Camp itself, and the forest around it, remains closed to visitors through at least November by the U.S. Forest Service, which owns the land. (The huge number of dead trees could fall and injure people, authorities said.) Fines for trespassing are as high as $5,000 per person. See the Forest Service website for more on the closure.

How does camp look now?

Tent cabin at Tuolumne Camp on Sept. 2, 2013. Photo: courtesy City of Berkeley

“There are portions down river that look like camp was never touched,” Ferris said. The downstream end of camp still has green trees and 14 tents standing. That’s where most of the dogwoods were, providing a bright green understory, in the summer, under the canopy of pines.

“But large portions of camp, coming over the southern hills, and over the river, are just totally burnt. The trees are all destroyed,” Ferris said. As Berkeleyside has reported, all the buildings in camp were destroyed, except a new bathroom in the area called Sun City.

Tree removal: logging needed, though questions over how much

At the Rim of the World overlook from Highway 120, near Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, signs of rebirth were visible in the green hillsides along the south fork of the Tuolumne River. Photo, taken on April 22, 2014, by Patrick Koepele

Ferris said 1,400 trees need to be removed from camp. Initially, the city thought it would be responsible for the tree removal but, because the Forest Service owns the land and trees, that agency is handling the initial stages of the removal. (The city leased the land from the Forest Service.)

In the fall, a first wave of logging will occur, with useable lumber cut down — conifers with a diameter of at least 12 inches. A second wave of logging will happen, probably next spring, with the smaller burnt trees turned into mulch.

Although there has been some disagreement between those who favor logging in the fire zone, and those who say the burnt trees are important habitat for regeneration of the forest, logging along roads and in recreation areas, such as family camp, is generally agreed upon, for safety reasons, Koepele said.

(Koepele is urging people to weigh in on the Forest Service’s proposed logging plan for the entire Rim Fire area before the deadline of June 16.)

Master plan: new guidelines from Forest Service

Before the Rim Fire hit, the city had almost finished a nearly five-year process to create a master plan to rebuild staff housing and the nature center, and deal with some code compliance issues.

Now, Ferris said, the city doesn’t know whether the master plan will need to be redone completely or only re-written in part. Step one is to get the new guidelines from the Forest Service and the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

Under new guidelines it might not be possible, for instance, to build the dining hall right next to the river again. Moving it uphill would cost more. Also, consideration of Indian historical sites in camp, such as grinding holes along the river, may have an impact on plans.

The Berkeley-run Tuolumne Camp in more halcyon times. The dining hall is on the right. On the left, high on the rock is the recreation center, which also burned. Photo: Sonny Abesamis

Another example is water and sewage. In the past, the camp took water from the river and sent sewage out through a pipe under the bridges. “That could change,” Ferris said. “It’s like planning a city,” he said of the whole process.

Getting the new guidelines from federal agencies will take at least six months to a year, Ferris said. (These agencies’ local offices, he said, are not heavily staffed and are now overwhelmed by all the obligations following the Rim Fire.)

Once the guidelines are known, and a master plan is re-written, it will need Forest Service approval, and then both state- and federal-level environmental reviews.

In short, there are several years’ worth of paperwork to be done before rebuilding can start.

Upcoming events to support camp’s resurgence

Throughout May and June there are Paddle-to-the-Sea events along the course of the Tuolumne River supporting the Tuolumne River Trust.

On Aug. 22, near the anniversary of the Rim Fire, the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp will hold a free campfire singalong, probably at the Berkeley Marina, said Scott Gelfand, a member of the Friends’ board of directors. On Sept. 5, a fundraiser golf tournament will be held at the Tilden Park golf course.

Also, Saturday, May 31, the Friends will host a work party in Alameda to build Adirondack chairs for this summer’s Sierra Family Camp at Echo Lake. RSVP to Steve Geahry at  steve_geahry@yahoo.com.

For the last three events, stay tuned to the Friends’ Facebook page for details.

Support for Tuolumne Camp stretches across the nation (02.06.14)
Berkeley family camp will this year be at Echo Lake (01.27.14)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp unsafe for visitors, says city (12.20.13)
Council to study $20M parks bond, 10% parks tax boost (12.12.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp supporters push to rebuild (10.16.13)
After the fire: What next for Berkeley Tuolumne Camp? (09.05.13)
Berkeleyans gather to remember Tuolumne camp (08.27.13)
Berkeley to hold a vigil Monday for Tuolumne Family Camp (08.25.13)
Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp appears safe for now (08.24.13)
Rim Fire forces evacuation of Cal Alumni Lair camp (08.23.13)
Berkeley Family Camp in danger due to escalating wildfire (08.22.13)
Wildfires close down Berkeley’s Tuolumne Family Camp (08.22.13)
Breaking: Wildfires put Tuolumne Family Camp on alert (08.20.13)

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Mary Flaherty is a freelance reporter who has lived in the Berkeley area for since 1994. She earned a masters in journalism from UC Berkeley, and has reported for several local papers and copyedited for...