Under threat from climate change, Berkeley’s family camps adapt to survive

As Berkeley Tuolumne Camp reopens, the city’s cherished rustic retreats are facing growing threats from wildfires and landslides.

GROVELAND — As the Caldor Fire roared toward Berkeley’s Echo Lake Camp last summer, Liza McNulty was furiously refreshing her phone, hoping for good news.

Like many parents, McNulty and her family had made carefree days at the city camp above the Lake Tahoe Basin one of their summer traditions. And she knew that if the camp burned, it wouldn’t just be a sentimental loss: McNulty had spent the past four years overseeing the $54.7 million project rebuilding Berkeley’s other Sierra Nevada retreat, Tuolumne Camp, which had been destroyed in the 2013 Rim Fire. After years of negotiations between the city, insurance companies and layers of federal, state and county bureaucracy, that project was finally nearing its end — the rebuilt Tuolumne Camp will welcome families back next month.

“If this burns down, we’re just starting over again,” she remembered thinking about Echo Lake Camp last August. “Can I do that? Do I have the bandwidth to do this again?”

The camp survived, thanks in large part to the work of Berkeley firefighters who had been sent to protect it. Still, the near-loss became the latest reminder that Berkeley’s beloved family camps — Tuolumne, Echo Lake and Cazadero — are becoming more vulnerable as Northern California’s climate changes.

Fire season is getting longer, with hotter summers and years of drought meaning blazes grow bigger and more destructive; even Cazadero, in the redwoods of Sonoma County’s coastal mountains, was threatened by a wildfire in 2020. We also face a future in which intense and destructive storms are more common, which could mean more landslides like the one that damaged a dormitory at Cazadero in 2017 and prompted a $3.2 million rebuild.

“Each area has its potential catastrophe that we’re prepping for,” Berkeley parks director Scott Ferris said.

As those risks ratchet up, the city’s insurance coverage for its camps has been capped at just $5 million per incident, one-tenth of the payout Berkeley received for Tuolumne Camp.

But Ferris said he does not believe climate change will mean the end of the camps, which have been part of Berkeley’s civic fabric for a century. Instead, he and McNulty said the city and its camps are adapting: Tuolumne Camp has been rebuilt to stand a better chance of surviving the next wildfire, and the Berkeley Fire Department now deploys crews to camps to protect them when they come under threat.

“These are amazing facilities and they’re needed in so many ways by the community,” Ferris said, “so you just need to be more diligent.”

Berkeley firefighters were sent to defend Echo Lake Camp from the Caldor Fire last August. Credit: City of Berkeley

Camps became cherished institutions

In the early 20th century, many Americans looked at their urbanizing society and worried that city dwellers were losing their connection to the natural world, said Mara Melandry, an author who wrote a history of Berkeley’s family camps. Starting on the East Coast, cities and organizations like the YMCA established camps outside of urban areas — while the wealthy had their vacation homes, these camps sought to give middle- and working-class families, many of them immigrants, their own spaces in the great outdoors.

“They were definitely designed to have lower rates so that more ordinary people could enjoy them,” Melandry said.

The idea spread west through the 1910s, and Berkeley embraced it with particular fervor. The city founded Tuolumne Camp on U.S. Forest Service land just outside the entrance to Yosemite National Park in 1922. It had three camps before the decade was over, adding Echo Lake Camp and then Cazadero, envisioned as a closer option that wouldn’t require the long journey to the Sierra, Melandry said.

The goal of an egalitarian natural paradise wasn’t always fully realized. As Tuolumne Camp reopens, city officials are working to shake a reputation it developed as a retreat for wealthier residents, by expanding access to scholarships and ramping up outreach to make more people aware of its programs.

group lined up between trees
A historic photo of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. Photo: Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp

But for generations of families, the camps delivered on their promise of fostering a love for nature.

“It was the one place in the world where I was unconditionally happy,” said Phil Coffin, a member of the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp board of directors who attended as a child, worked there as a counselor and has written two books about it. Coffin has an image of Beaverhead Rock, the massive granite boulder from which campers jump into the South Fork of the Tuolumne River, tattooed on his left arm.

McNulty visited Tuolumne Camp for the first time in 2013, the same summer a bow hunter in a remote canyon of the Stanislaus National Forest kindled a fire that grew out of his control. The Rim Fire would eventually cover more than 250,000 acres, making it the third-largest fire to that point in California’s history; eight bigger blazes have ignited since then.

Before all of that, McNulty saw how free children were to roam without their parents’ supervision at Tuolumne Camp, and enjoyed the songs campers had for seemingly every task, from thanking kitchen staff to sending kids off to bed. Her daughter was 2, and McNulty was pregnant with her second child.

“We knew that we would come every year,” she said. “And then it burned down.”

Liza McNulty, who oversaw the $54.7 million project rebuilding Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, stands on a new footbridge over the South Fork of the Tuolumne River at the heart of the camp. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

‘It will be under threat again’

Standing on the road that winds past the newly rebuilt Tuolumne Camp, McNulty said it’s hard to overstate how much more protected the new facility is from wildfire.

As a result of modern building codes for areas with high fire risk, materials like the doors of the new staff cabins and the siding on the recreation hall are designed to withstand flames for longer than conventional construction. The new dining hall has a sprinkler system that covers not just the kitchen, 300-person indoor seating area and deck, but also the beams on the underside of the building to protect it from flames below.

Tent cabins, some of which were nearly touching at the old camp, are all at least 10 feet apart. The extra space means the camp’s footprint is twice as large, though its capacity of 330 participants and staff is unchanged.

Glinting on a nearby hillside, only partially concealed by the burned and still-standing trees surrounding Tuolumne Camp in every direction, is perhaps its most important new feature: A 240,000-gallon water tank, which firefighters can access from small yellow hydrants and connection points around the facility.

“The expectation is that it will be under threat of wildfire again,” McNulty said. “We want to be in a position where we can fight that fire and protect the camp.”

If firefighters can’t keep the next blaze out of the camp, she said, the higher building standards should mean “we are significantly less likely to have a total loss.”

The Rim Fire consumed the old dining hall, staff cabins, “Kiddie Camp” and every other structure on the site with the exception of 16 tent cabins and one bathroom.

Berkeley ultimately received just over $50 million from its insurers to rebuild Tuolumne Camp, along with about $1 million from the Federal Emergency Management Agency and California’s Office of Emergency Services, and $2.7 million of city funding.

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

That kind of payout won’t happen again: A year after the Rim Fire, insurer Lexington AIG enacted the $5 million coverage cap as part of an agreement to continue insuring Berkeley and other cities, Ferris said.

The city expects FEMA aid would cover losses that exceed the $5 million limit. Still, Ferris and McNulty describe the experience of losing Tuolumne Camp — and the painstaking process that went into its rebuilding — as a wake-up call that has spurred the city to better protect its camps.

The parks department has started showing Berkeley firefighters around Echo Lake and Cazadero, where they provide feedback on how to manage vegetation and mitigate threats, and also get familiar with terrain and structures they have been sent to defend in each of the last two fire seasons. A week before the Caldor Fire reached Echo Summit, Berkeley crews were at the camp clearing vegetation and preparing the site in case the fire became a threat; as the blaze grew and got closer, they returned to fight it.

“I have no doubt that we would’ve lost Echo Camp without our firefighters there,” McNulty said.

Berkeley Tuolumne Camp before the Rim Fire. Photo: Sonny Abesamis/Creative Commons.

Fires change experience for campers

In the nine years Tuolumne Camp has been closed, camps like it throughout California have learned to grapple with a range of wildfire-related problems that go beyond the immediate threat of surviving a blaze.

“You typically don’t get through a season without some kind of smoke day,” said Jaye Phillips, park facilities supervisor for the city of San Jose, which operates its Family Camp at Yosemite a few miles from Tuolumne Camp. San Jose’s camp was spared serious damage in the Rim Fire, but Phillips said he and the other Sierra camp leaders are all facing similar challenges — like figuring out how to keep kids entertained during smoke days and deciding when air quality is bad enough to send participants home.

That’s one of many ways wildfires have changed people’s relationship with nature in places like the Sierra. In the Tuolumne Camp scene tattooed on Coffin’s arm, the river is surrounded by pine trees; the old camp could barely be seen from the road, sitting on a hillside thick with trees that towered over the dining hall.

The new recreation hall (left), dining hall (center), and tent cabins at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp are seen from the new bridge over the South Fork of the Tuolumne River on May 12, 2022. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

“It was wonderful to be tucked away and folded in this rich, deep, green forest,” Coffin said. But in retrospect, he knows, that thick tree canopy he loved also made the camp more vulnerable to fire.

When the first round of families arrives on June 27, they’ll notice the new Tuolumne Camp is far more exposed. Volunteers have planted thousands of trees at the site, the species and their placement chosen with an eye toward future fire risk, but they’re still just saplings. Burned stumps are all that remains of many trees that used to provide shade and privacy around the camp.

“That’s going to be the most challenging thing for campers: feeling like it’s not in a forest any longer,” McNulty said. “Reforestation is the work of a generation, not the work of a construction contract.”

While the city sought to “harmonize” the new Tuolumne Camp with what people remember from the old one, McNulty acknowledges that the experience this summer will be different. The newly built tent cabins’ fresh lumber stands out next to the deep brown of the few structures that survived the fire, and it’ll take a while for the weathering steel on the roof of the new buildings to lose its shine.

The new dining hall at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp is seen from the south fork of the Tuolumne River on May 12, 2022. The camp will reopen this summer, nearly nine years after it was destroyed in the 2013 Rim Fire. Credit: Kelly Sullivan

But campers will still sing songs for every occasion, and the new showers have stone walls just like the old ones did. Staff will still put a weir into the South Fork of the Tuolumne River to make a swimming hole, and campers will jump off of Beaverhead Rock as a rite of passage. They’ll swim a few feet from the foundation of the old dining hall, its concrete tinted pink by the Rim Fire’s heat.

Nine years after she thought her Tuolumne Camp tradition was beginning, McNulty has signed her family up for their week this summer.

“I will be here every summer,” she said, “and I will be bringing my grandkids here.”

Asked if she worries that Tuolumne Camp might not be there for her grandchildren as the climate changes, McNulty said, “I feel concerned that all of the wild places in California are threatened.”

Then again, she added, “I think that this camp is probably one of the least-threatened that exists now, given that it is new and modern construction, meeting all of that fire-safe code. I guess the answer is sort of both.”

Nico Savidge is Berkeleyside's senior reporter covering city hall. Email: nico@berkeleyside.org. Twitter: NSavidge.