Berkeley firefighters who hoped to mount a defense of the city’s beloved Echo Lake Camp were instead forced to retreat Monday afternoon as dangerous winds drove the massive Caldor Fire toward the civic institution, officials said.
By late afternoon, Berkeley Mayor Jesse Arreguín tweeted that spot fires — small blazes sparked when burning embers blow ahead of a larger fire and land in flammable material — were being reported on the grounds of Echo Lake Camp.
The crew of eight city firefighters traveled to the camp on Sunday to try to protect it from the blaze that has grown to cover more than 177,000 acres and was within a quarter-mile of the facility by Monday morning. They were joining thousands of fire personnel already battling the Caldor Fire, which is threatening more than 20,000 structures and has forced mass evacuations from South Lake Tahoe.
But amid Red Flag conditions Monday afternoon, Scott Ferris, director of the city’s Parks, Recreation and Waterfront Department, said firefighters had to retreat from the camp that has been a Sierra playground for generations of Berkeley residents.
“It looks like everybody who has been fighting the fire in that area is moving out, because the fire has crested over the hill and is coming down towards the camp,” Ferris said.
Assistant Berkeley Fire Chief Keith May said Monday that it was too soon to know whether there has been any damage to structures at Echo Lake Camp, which include a large dining hall and recreation lodge, a water treatment building, pool, several cabins for staff and dozens of tent cabins for campers.
May confirmed crews were forced to move to safer ground and said they planned to assess the camp and try “to save what they can” once the fire front moves through the Echo Lake area.
As Monday shaped up to be a critical day in the defense of the camp, weather forecasts were not in firefighters’ favor. A Red Flag Warning is in effect for the area through Tuesday night, calling for windy conditions that were expected to continue pushing flames toward the camp.
After firefighters’ were forced to retreat Monday afternoon, Ferris said, “I’m not giving up hope.”
Berkeley has operated Echo Lake Camp since 1922, and its summer youth camps on a ridge with vistas of Lake Tahoe are a tradition for many Berkeley families who return to them each year. Several private cabins in the Echo Lake area belong to Berkeley residents as well.
Work to protect the camp began last week, when a Berkeley fire crew spent three days moving brush away from structures and working to “create as big of a buffer as they could” so they would have space to fight the fire when it arrived, May said.
Another crew returned to the camp on Sunday, when shifting winds began blowing the Caldor Fire toward Echo Lake, May said. Amid Red Flag conditions, he said, firefighters were worried Monday morning about the phenomenon known as “ember cast,” in which winds whip up pieces of burning vegetation that can spark spot fires — precisely the conditions that seem to have materialized throughout the day.
“A fire like this will create its own weather pattern, and it’s pushing it and advancing it by throwing ember cast up to a mile away,” May said. “That’s the big concern.
“For us here in Berkeley we just have to wait and see, and hope our crews make the best decisions to keep themselves safe,” he said.
Berkeley parks staff members who stuck around to help firefighters prepare the camp last week have evacuated, Ferris said. Camp officials previously canceled programming that had been planned for the second half of August.
Many Berkeley families were following news of the fire’s advance with sadness on Monday. Councilmember Lori Droste said her family has looked forward to trips to Echo Lake Camp each summer since another family first invited them up several years ago.
“We were hooked,” Droste said, spending nights in the camp’s tent cabins after days of arts and crafts, archery, dancing and s’mores. Under the supervision of the camp’s counselors, Droste said, her children and others “would just run free all day, and we’d see them in the evening.”
“It’s a great opportunity for Berkeley kids,” she said.
Echo Lake is the latest Berkeley recreational facility to be menaced by a wildfire: Crews are now rebuilding Tuolumne Camp near Groveland after it was destroyed in the Rim Fire in 2013. And the city-owned Cazadero Music Camp in Sonoma County was briefly threatened by a wildfire last summer.
Seeing another beloved camp in jeopardy has made this an emotionally taxing time for city workers, Ferris said.
“Echo Lake is such a wonderful place,” he said. “As a staff, we have put a lot of time and energy, both physical and emotional, into the rebuilding of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, and having to do that again seems really daunting. But we will, if need be.”