Tuolumne Family Camp before it burned down in 2013. Photo: Sonny Abesamis/Creative Commons
Tuolumne Family Camp before it burned down in 2013. Photo: Sonny Abesamis/Creative Commons

To the relief of hundreds of mourning families, Berkeley Tuolumne Camp will be brought back to life.

The City Council voted Tuesday to dedicate $3.3 million to rebuilding the Berkeley-run camp, which was destroyed by the 2013 Rim Fire.

That local contribution allows the city to access grants from FEMA. Those federal dollars, along with insurance and funding from the California Office of Emergency Services and insurance money will together cover the estimated $54 million rebuilding cost. Scott Gelfand, who has been leading the campaign to bring the family camp back to life, estimates the insurance funds and FEMA will cover 92% of the rebuilding cost. The city’s contribution comes from its Catastrophic Reserve, which was created in January for one-time disaster relief expenses.

“We can now move forward to the rebuilding cycle, it’s not about the death cycle,” said Gelfand. The effort to rebuild the camp has been spearheaded by the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp group which, Gelfand said, is 10,000-strong.

Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp, a residential summer family camp operated by the City of Berkeley for its residents, is located seven miles west of the entrance to Yosemite National Park.

With the financial backing, reconstruction will likely start in 2019, the staff report says, and the popular Yosemite family camp could reopen in the summer of 2021. The site, in operation since 1922, was also used for teen leadership programs and adult camps, until nearly all the buildings were destroyed by the fire.

Gelfand predicts the rest of this year and 2018 will be spent on the design and permitting process.

The City Council’s vote to rebuild the camp came after several former campers and staff delivered heartfelt eulogies for the institution during a special meeting earlier on Tuesday evening. The camp community has been active in fundraising and campaigning in support of the rebuilding effort. The Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp group pledged Tuesday to make an initial $50,000 donation and continue to raise funds.

The city, which operated the camp under a use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, has worked toward rebuilding the site since it burned down. Staff from the city’s parks department told the council Tuesday that an initial plan has been drawn up, and “the city is poised to move forward aggressively.”

In its last summer in operation, Berkeley Tuolumne camp hosted 4,000 campers. Many Berkeley families had spent every summer there for years — or generations, in some cases.

At the meeting Tuolumne alumni listed off all the ways the camp left its mark on their lives — by inspiring a career in environmental education, or encouraging families to spend more time together. One self-described “math/tech type” noted that Tuolumne was the only place where he ever felt inclined to do arts and crafts.

Another said he got married there, in the presence of many friends he had met at the camp.

A photograph taken at the site of the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp on Aug. 28, 2013, three days after the Rim Fire swept through it. Photo: U.S. Forest Service

Some speakers talked about their experience working on staff at Tuolumne, which offered many teenagers their first jobs. They commented on the racial diversity of the staff, saying it exemplified a kind of unity hard to find in the city.

“I grew up as a person and saw a lot of people growing up as people,” said Theo Jerome, who worked at the camp for nine years. “I think that was the best time of my life.”

It is not only the Tuolumne campers who will benefit from the rebuilt site. The revenue from the camp has historically paid for the bulk of programming at all of the city’s other overnight and day camps. After the fire the camps have operated with a structural deficit. Tuolumne brings in the funds for Echo Lake, Cazadero Performing Arts Camp, and Berkeley day camp, which is offered in the summer for kids from low-income families. “It makes business sense to bring back Tuolumne,” said Gelfand, “as it runs at enough of a profit to sustain the other camps.”

Berkeley Echo Lake Camp has hosted some family camps since the fire to make up for lost funds.

The city’s other residential camps are also recuperating from damage, though nothing as extreme as what happened at Tuolumne.

In 2016 a landslide at Cazadero left an estimated $1.4 million in damages. Echo Lake also sustained some damage from snow a few years ago. The affected buildings have been repaired, but the camp still needs several hundred thousand dollars in improvement work elsewhere, staff said.

“Unfortunately the exposure to nature that we so value in these camps also exposes them to some significant hazards,” the parks department’s Liza McNulty told the council.

The allocation of the rebuilding funds passed on the consent calendar. Councilwoman Sophie Hahn said the rebuilding process presented an opportunity for the city to do stronger recruitment for the camps at Berkeley schools.

“This is the place where their happiest memories live”

Gelfand said he was thrilled that the council’s action meant the end of the grieving for the much-loved camp, adding that for many, young and old, “it’s very personal — this is the place where their happiest memories live.”

The Friends group has kept active since the Rim Fire and will continue to be. Forty people recently turned up at the Tuolumne site to join a replanting party. “We planted 3,000 trees in one day,” said Gelfand. “There were kids there and teenagers — one celebrated her 17th birthday planting trees — it was magical.”

The Friends group is putting on an event — the fourth of its kind — at the Freight & Salvage on May 1 to celebrate the forward motion on rebuilding and to provide updates on what happens next. Gelfand said an oversized check for $50,000, which has already been raised, will be presented to the city, and there will be live music and a short movie.

Additional reporting by Tracey Taylor.

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Natalie Orenstein reports on housing and homelessness for The Oaklandside. Natalie was a Berkeleyside staff reporter from early 2017 to May 2020. She had previously contributed to the site since 2012,...