The Rim Fire is a little too close to home. Not just because I think Tuolumne County is a drier, more southern version of Plumas County, but literally, it is too close to home.
Home for me is Sonora, the county seat of Tuolumne County, and, coincidentally, I went and visited there this last weekend.
A fire of this magnitude is surreal to most of us. The extent of my experience with fires is the smoke of some other community’s fire that blows its way up the Sierra.
However, after spending a few days in Tuolumne County, I saw firsthand how a helpless community reacts to such a frightening force of nature.
The topography of the county is hills and ravines but hardly any valleys to speak of. There are two types of forests there: thick pine or forests of granite. Where there are rocks, there is hardly any fuel, but where there are trees, that is all in sight for miles and miles. This means when fires come, they are virtually inaccessible and heavily fueled.
All three of my siblings were going to be in town, which is a rarity in my family. Eager not to miss out on an impromptu family reunion, I made the trek to Sonora.
Initially, when I heard about the Rim Fire, I wasn’t too alarmed. Fires are very typical where I’m from. However, when I realized how big it was and where it was traveling, I got more anxious.
On my drive down, I was caught in a herd of fire trucks and CalFire vehicles making their way up the mountain to defend areas I grew up in. As they drove past me, realizing their importance, I causally waved, because it seemed like the right thing to do.
As I continued on my way, I passed the county fairgrounds. We just hosted our fair in July, and instead of a brightly lit Ferris wheel and the bustle of carnival attendees, there were solemn rows of tents and RVs housing county evacuees.
The fire grew exponentially that first week, and it was clear it left the community dumbstruck.
I was in awe of the feeling of helplessness that comes with such a monstrous fire. I finally understood why everyone should thank firefighters.
It is so out of our hands. We are not equipped or prepared; we don’t understand a fire, so all the county could do was paint the town with thank yous.
The streets were festooned with “thank you Rim Fire fighter” signs, and cars were covered in car paint, like they were cheering for the Wildcats, our high school football team.
As I saw it, that’s exactly what was happening. We were cheering them on, encouraging them not to give up.
Please don’t give up.
One day, when the fire was at 7 percent containment and the acreage burned had doubled, I went to Kohl’s, one of the only retail stores in the county. The parking lot was full of squadrons of fire trucks of every shape, size and color, and from every part of the state.
A firefighter was in front of me in the checkout line. As he was purchasing his undershirts and socks, the cashier asked him if he was fighting the fire and he said yes.
The woman was garbed in stickers of different fire departments, so much so that her clothes where hidden underneath. She smiled and asked him how it was going.
“It’s really big,” he said.
I don’t think that was the answer she wanted to hear, but she proceeded to give him 20 percent off his purchase anyway.
“Thank you for what you’re doing,” she said.
Though Sonora was about 30 minutes from the fire that does not mean we won’t suffer. Our friend’s homes are at risk. The forest that was my backyard growing up is scorched.
Lakes I backpacked to, and wildernesses I have explored via horseback are blackened. Parts of Yosemite, which greeted us for years as we entered the park, are disintegrated.
When I woke up on Monday morning and I walked out to a day eclipsed by the white smoke, my dad told me the fire is at 15 percent containment.
“That’s a good start,” he said.
At that time the fire had already burned 163,000 acres. I fear what a “good” finish will cost that place.