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Rim fire rages, but Groveland tries to remain calm

As the huge fire near Yosemite defies efforts to control it, the Iron Door Saloon keeps its doors open and gritty residents keep their cool.

August 23, 2013|By Diana Marcum
  • A plume of smoke rises above a ridge as the Rim fire approaches the Yosemite Lakes campground near Groveland, Calif., on Friday.
A plume of smoke rises above a ridge as the Rim fire approaches the Yosemite… (Justin Sullivan, Getty…)

GROVELAND, Calif. — The billowing cloud rising behind this Gold Rush town of potted petunias and clapboard houses was three times higher than the highest peak at nearby Yosemite National Park.

Almost everyone in town could tell you it was formed by heat and if it imploded could create winds that could whip up the Rim fire — already covering more than 110,000 acres, and defying the efforts of water-dropping planes, helicopters and more than 2,000 firefighters. As of Friday night, the fire was 2% contained.

"We've all learned a lot about clouds and fire," said Laurie Nagle, a volunteer with the Yosemite Chamber of Commerce at Groveland. She was in the visitors center listening to a phone message left by a woman in North Carolina who watched the fire on television and wanted to know if she could send clothes and supplies.

"Learned a lot about people, too," Nagle said.

The fire is threatening more than 4,500 structures and several mountain communities are under mandatory evacuation. California 120, the western Yosemite entrance most used by travelers from the Bay Area, has been closed since Monday. The economy of mountain communities depending on summer tourists' last hurrahs have been devastated.

On Thursday, Gov. Jerry Brown declared a state of emergency. Late Friday, Brown extended the state of emergency to include the city and county of San Francisco, saying the fire has caused damage to electrical infrastructure serving the area. The San Francisco Public Utilities Commission has been forced to shut down transmission lines, and delivery of water and electricity could be interrupted.

And the fire still rages, sometimes doubling in size overnight. On Thursday, the fire grew from 63,000 to more than 105,000 acres.

Martin Molnar believes he watched the beginnings of the fire that is threatening his town.

He moved to Groveland from the Bay Area hoping to hike every trail in Yosemite. Last Saturday, he was in the northwestern corner of the park.

"I was on one side of the Tuolumne Canyon and on the other rim, there was a deep V between two peaks and a fire on each side. They joined and made a ring. People were pulling over to the side of the road to watch," said Molnar, who works in the wilderness center at Yosemite's Curry Village.

Even at that moment, watching what he suspects was a double lightning strike, he had a premonition that he would have to flee his house. On Friday afternoon, with the fire line about 21/2 miles from his house, he hauled out the bookcase made by his grandfather and grabbed a coat rack saved from the 1906 San Francisco fires.

"I watched that ring of fire and it was 'Holy. Holy,' " he said. "I know snowpack has been at 70% of normal for two years. I know that wood is as dry as what you would buy at a lumber store. And this was on a double-sided peak that no one could get to."

The fire burning on the edges of this town of 3,000 usually lies down at night — but twice now it has doubled in size by morning. The smoke tends to be worse in the morning, but people still breathe a little easier because the updates of breached fire lines don't seem to come as fast as they do later in the day.

It's in the afternoons, when the day warms up and the wind blows, that people stand in the middle of the two-lane highway and silently watch the smoke cloud.

This week, almost every shop and restaurant bears a sign saying "Closed Because of the Rim Fire" in its window.

But the Iron Door Saloon has remained open.

"It's kind of our thing. We're always open. Christmas. Fires," said owner Corinna Loh, 35, whose parents once ran the saloon that has been in continuous operation since 1852.

On Friday afternoon, every bar stool was taken. Maps showing the perimeter of the fire were laid out like place mats.

People jabbed their fingers at the maps, swapping updates: "His shed is gone. But the house is still there" and "They say it's right at the camp but they're holding the line."

One young woman in cowboy boots and shorts said, "I want bluegrass!"

Immediately, there were volunteers to form a singing group to ease her disappointment at the cancellation of the Strawberry Music Festival, a 32-year tradition that takes place at a camp that is now inside the fire line.

But mostly people asked about people they knew fighting the fire: "Heard from Susan?" "Did you see that photo Jason sent from last night?"

"You're not going to find anyone who doesn't know at least one person on the fire," Loh said. "There's not many jobs out in the country and firefighter is one of them. It's the parents of your kid's friends. It's every boy between 18 and 25."

Wildfires are part of the Sierra in the summer. But no one has seen a fire this out of control since 1987 when all of California seemed to be burning. Four firefighters died in those blazes, including one in Stanislaus National Forest.

Groveland was hard-hit, waking up to smoke-blackened skies for weeks.

During that time, Loh's mother, Bettike Barsoti, sent her children to the Bay Area and stayed to keep the bar open — just like Loh did this week.

She told people evacuated from their homes they were welcome to keep their pets at the saloon.

"It's brick walls and an iron door. They say in the old days it had a sod roof and they would close the doors and ride it out," said Loh, glancing down the street at the big smoke cloud.

"The houses are one thing," Loh said. "But just, please, let the firefighters be all right."

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