News that the Sierra Rim fire was threatening the town of Tuolumne City, east of Sonora in the foothills along Highway 108, prompted us to head up to check on the vacation cabin in Long Barn that had been in our family for nearly 40 years.
We arrived around 9 p.m. Sunday and, although we could smell smoke, the stars were out and we didn’t notice much fire-related activity. We talked about playing tennis and taking care of some cabin chores the next day. But when we awoke Monday morning, the usually brilliant blue sky was an eerie yellow-gray and the sun was a fireball as it rose through the Ponderosa and sugar pines. Our eyes were stinging, and ash was settling on the cabin deck.
A glance at the Cal Fire website told us that an evacuation advisory had been issued for Twain Harte, across 108 from Tuolumne City, and a major goal would be to stop the blaze at the North Fork of the Tuolumne River, south of 108. Aggravated winds, which had been predicted for Sunday, hadn’t materialized but were possible again on Monday.
For the vacation communities along 108 — Sugar Pine, Sierra Village, Mi-Wuk, Cold Springs and Long Barn — Alicia’s Sugar Shack is the go-to place for great breakfasts and local gossip. We headed down the mountain for information, and Alicia’s didn’t disappoint.
The highway was lined with fire trucks from the California Department of Forestry and dozens of other cities as they gathered at staging points along the road. We passed a parade of trucks bearing the logos of Fresno, Selma, Coalinga, Sunnyvale, Santa Clara, Palo Alto and two trucks from the city of San Francisco. We heard that the city’s Camp Mather was completely surrounded by fire but being held so far. Camp Tuolumne, Berkeley’s city camp, was lost.
Wherever there was space along 108, huge flat-bed rigs were unloading bulldozers which were heading south on the peripheral roads. Four rigs sat empty and bare at the entrance to the OddFellows Park east of Sierra Village. Armies of blue PG&E trucks were setting up staging sights in parking lots where platoons of portable toilets had been erected in the early morning hours. One van had three huge maps taped to its side with colored arrows directing activity.
Sleepy motels that are usually nearly empty were boasting no-vacancy signs, filled with fire and utility crews. Restaurants put out signs, “Fire crews welcome; breakfast on us!” or similar messages. The themes were all the same, echoed by improvised banners homeowners displayed: “Thank you, firefighters!”
Alicia’s was crowded with customers spilling out on the picnic tables under the trees. Alicia Hartle was dishing out sticky buns and ham-filled croissants and gallons of coffee to locals who were prodding the fire crewmembers and volunteers who had been on the fire lines. The word was hopeful, even positive, for the towns along 108, with lots of urging to be ready.
“We’ve had our truck packed for four days,” said Alicia, who lives in Sugar Pine not far behind the cafe. “We can leave in a moment’s notice if we have to, but until then, we’ll just be feeding people.”
But there was an edge to her voice we had not noticed before.
Two Sonora school teachers who live in Soulsbyville, just west of Twain Harte, were taking an unexpected day off. “We started school on Wednesday and had to have rainy-day recesses inside because of the smoke. So they just said to stay home today and closed the school.”
They had walked through their home with a video camera the night before to have an insurance record, just in case.
A building contractor stopped by for coffee on the way to move his heavy (and expensive) table saws to his mother’s house in Sonora. He had volunteered cutting brush for a firebreak over the weekend. He said the fire wasn’t a “hot one,” which apparently meant that it was burning ground cover but not necessarily trees. That’s what one patron called a “good fire,” and it appears there is such a thing.
The general aviation airport at Columbia, just north of Sonora, was Ground Zero for Cal Fire air operations. A temporary air traffic control center was set up on Friday to direct the flow of air tankers and massive firefighting helicopters, and the cadre of airport bums, who sit outside and watch planes come and go, had nearly tripled in size, according to a jogger who stopped to see what was going on.
We headed back up the mountain to take photos, room by room, and pack up a quilt my grandmother had pieced, a framed needlepoint my late mother-in-law had stitched and a carved Indian Guides sign my son had helped make as a child. Two of the names on the sign have special meaning.
We searched for — and found — the rolled-up building plans for the cabin, shut down the utilities (except for the water!) and headed home. We didn’t want to be east of Twain Harte if 108 was breached, which would mean a trip over Sonora Pass and back around to get back to the Peninsula. And we didn’t want to be part of the problem either.
We’re hopeful, but we couldn’t help looking around to record a view that may never be again.
Michelle Carter is the former managing editor of the San Mateo Times. She lives in Belmont with her husband Mike Venturino.