Visualization of the planned dining hall for Berkeley Tuolumne Camp
A visualization of the new dining hall planned for Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. Siegel and Strain Architects

Scott Gelfand was recently in Southern California, giving an update to the local members of Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp.

Suddenly, he noticed an older man breaking into tears.

“He met his wife there,” said Gelfand, the group’s executive director. “This place has meant the happiest memories for Berkeley families coming up on 100 years.”

Built in 1922 and located seven miles from the western entrance to Yosemite National Park, Berkeley Tuolumne Camp was almost wiped out by the Rim Fire in 2013.

The planned $60 million rebuilding process continues six years later. The project’s design phase is mostly done. The city has applied for the necessary 30-year use permit from the U.S. Forest Service, which officials expect to be granted within the next few weeks.

The city is expected to begin advertising for construction bids in November. Hammers start swinging next spring, if all goes as expected. Two years later, there should be a new site, just in time to celebrate Berkeley Tuolumne Camp’s 100th birthday.

“People are emotionally charged up,” Gelfand said. “People feel like their personal family memory photo album burned.”

Of 138 structures on the then-14-acre site, only 18 tent cabins and one restroom survived the firestorm. Planners realize climate change has only intensified wildfire danger during the ensuing six years and will likely get worse.

This time, the site will encompass a more manageable 30 acres, with increased space between buildings and more firebreaks. At least one additional fire road would likely ring the property.

“It would give the camp a fighting chance,” Gelfand said.

Gelfand said the camp will be the most ADA-accessible and the most fire-resilient camp of its kind in the United States.

Visualization of a rebuilt Berkeley Tuolumne Camp along the river
Visualization of the planned rebuilt Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, with the recreation hall in the foreground and the dining hall to the right. Siegel and Strain Architects

According to city documents, the project will cost $60 million, $57 million of which Gelfand said will likely come from FEMA or insurance. The Forest Service will co-manage the property with the city, which is kicking in $3.3 million for the rebuild.

The city is still negotiating with insurance companies and finalizing necessary project documents with FEMA, according to Liza McNulty, from the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department.

“That said, we track all project costs that are ineligible for cost recovery money from insurance or FEMA,” McNulty said. “Primarily, those costs are associated with constructed shade and with larger tree plantings.”

Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp has raised $436,000 of its targeted $1 million for those “ineligible project expenses.” That includes trails, material upgrades and landscaping. The fire destroyed an estimated 6,000-8,000 trees.

“We want to come back to a forest,” said Gelfand, whose group has already starting planting new trees in the area.

In its last summer before the fire, BTC hosted more than 4,000 visitors, according to the city. The camp ran a full slate of outdoor education programs, including its Kiddie Kamp for 2-to-5-year-olds. It also featured organized activities for all ages.

Though generally thought of a Berkeley thing, the camp’s vibe is powerful enough to convert even those from Los Angeles. Glenn Berkovitz says he doesn’t remember how his “not super outdoorsy L.A. parents” discovered BTC. But he went every year from his first birthday until he was 22. Years later, he started another annual pilgrimage with his own children – and his parents again – for another 14 years.

“I grew up with many good Bay Area friends, all attributable to my parents’ friendly nature and our dedication to Berkeley Tuolumne,” Berkovitz said. “And, now, my son and daughter happily say the same. And perhaps both chose to attend Cal based on the appreciation of the culture we love at camp.”

Berkovitz will always have one particularly vivid memory associated with the camp, during a 1974 trip into nearby Yosemite.

“I climbed the back side of Half Dome the day Richard Nixon resigned,” he said. “We returned to Yosemite Valley at 10 p.m. to hear raucous cheering in the campgrounds.”

Revenue from BTC has, historically, paid for most of the programming at Berkeley’s other overnight and day camps. That includes Berkeley Echo Lake Camp, Cazadero Performing Arts Camp and Berkeley Day Camp.

Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp are hosting upcoming fundraising events, including its third annual gala celebrating the rebuilding of the camp, Sept. 19 at the University Club. Go to the group’s website for more details.

“It’s sacred ground. It’s built into the fabric of Berkeley culture,” said Gelfand. “It’s not just about the buildings, though that it’s on track to be built on the same space is miraculous.”

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Tony Hicks is an East Bay native who spent 22 years working for Bay Area News Group, covering crime, education and the city of Berkeley. He also worked in the features department of the Contra Costa Times,...