| | By Robert Gammon
Not long after Richard Thomason awoke in his rustic tent cabin at Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, he noticed a few clouds of smoke billowing in the distant morning sky. "All right," he recalled thinking to himself. "That's not good. I hope it doesn't mean anything." It was August 2013, and the forests of the Sierra Nevada were crackling dry after two years of drought.
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, a city-run camp for families and youth, is just outside the north gate of Yosemite National Park, and Thomason and his wife had planned to drive into the park that day for a hike. So after breakfast in the Dining Hall, and despite the ominous smoke in the distance, they decided to leave their two daughters, ages 13 and 16, at camp for a day of activities.
But as they trekked toward North Dome, they realized that the fire was inching closer. "As we were hiking, looking down, we could see the sky was getting smokier and smokier," Thomason recalled in a recent interview.
So they headed back to camp to make sure their daughters were safe. But they quickly ran into a traffic jam. Highway 120 was closed. The spreading fire had already cut them off from their children. "We've got to get our kids!" Thomason recalled yelling at the time. "You've got to let us out!"
The panicked couple flagged down a park ranger and explained their emergency. "We were really, really scared and freaked out," Thomason said. The ranger decided to give them a personal escort, down Highway 120, to camp. Thick smoke was everywhere, and nearby San Jose Family Camp had already evacuated. "It was scary to see how freaked out the rangers were," he added.
Luckily, the blaze had not yet reached Berkeley camp. "We just told our friends and kids, 'We've got to pack up everything and leave!'" Thomason said.
They hastily crammed their stuff into their car and drove with other families toward Groveland. But the big fire was turning into a conflagration now, and their path was blocked. So they turned around, back toward Yosemite, eventually escaping via Highway 140 and Mariposa.
Berkeley Tuolumne Camp evacuated completely the next day—before the third-largest fire in California history roared through the property on Hardin Flat Road. The Rim Fire decimated the 91-year-old camp, leveling the historic Dining Hall and the Rec Hall and tearing through the riverside tent cabins.
No Berkeley campers were injured in the Rim Fire, but thousands of hearts were broken.
Set among the towering sugar pines of the Stanislaus National Forest, Camp Tuolumne was a breathtakingly beautiful place, a serene, wooded spot along the scenic South Fork of the Tuolumne River. But more than that, it was a summer home, a favorite getaway for thousands of people from Berkeley and throughout the East Bay each year. A place where generations of friends and families returned annually to turn off and tune out, enjoy nature and each others' company, and relax with a good book on the green Adirondack chairs or in front of the Dining Hall fireplace.
"Sitting in the front of that fireplace or sitting in front of the river . . . it's a spiritual, magical place," said Bonnie Taylor, who first began her summer sojourns to Berkeley camp in 1985. "It's one of the most beautiful spots on Earth—with the river running through it."
In the days after the news spread that Camp Tuolumne was no more, mourners turned to Facebook to organize an impromptu vigil at Civic Center park in downtown Berkeley. "We thought maybe 10 people would show up," said Scott Gelfand, a longtime camper who is now executive director of the nonprofit Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp. But as the vigil started to get underway, waves of campers began to arrive. The crowd ultimately swelled to nearly 3,000 strong, Gelfand said. "It was incredible."
In the months following, campers talked about whether they would ever be able to rebuild camp, considering the devastation left by the Rim Fire. By the time firefighters finally brought the massive blaze under control two months after it sparked, the Rim Fire had torched tens of millions trees and 257,314 acres of forestland—a swath nearly three times the size of the cities of Berkeley, Oakland, and San Francisco, combined.
Yet despite the wreckage, many campers wanted to see the burn site for themselves. That winter and spring, they secretly defied stay-away orders from the U.S. Forest Service, taking clandestine trips to their old haunting grounds. "I personally sat there for hours," Gelfand said of his trip to the burned-out camp about a year after the fire. "There is a rich spirit to that space. The Native Americans knew it. . . . And I think everybody who's been up there knew that. It's pretty special."
Working with the Forest Service and the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, the city eventually concluded that it wanted to rebuild camp in the same spot. Part of the reason was strictly practical. Berkeley's insurance carrier said it would only fund the maximum payout on the city's policy—as much as $50 million—if the camp were built where it always stood, Gelfand said. But campers also couldn't bear the thought of relocating camp because of the feelings they shared about their beloved spot on the river.
"This is where people's love and happiness and dreams reside," said Gelfand, who started going to camp in 1984 and worked for years on staff each summer. "This is where their memories are."
But the struggle to recapture those memories and create new ones may be an uphill battle in the years ahead. Even with the insurance payout and funds from the Federal Emergency Management Agency, or FEMA, the city and Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp will have to cobble together as much as $5.3 million to finance the complete reconstruction of camp.
And the deep scars left by the Rim Fire remain. Some vegetation has begun to grow back, but according to the U.S. Forest Service, nearly 130 dead trees in camp must be removed. In addition, the ridgeline above camp is choked with downed trees that present a serious fire hazard. Plus, there is concern about mudslides from this winter's mega storms.
Campers, however, are resolute. "We have no doubt that it will be rebuilt," Gelfand said. "And we want it to be as fast as possible."
The Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp is shooting for the summer of 2020 as a reopening date. But even if it's successful, camp will never be the same.
The city of Berkeley built Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in 1922 during a time when municipalities throughout the nation were buying and constructing wilderness camps as inexpensive vacation spots for city dwellers. San Francisco's Camp Mather, near the city-owned Hetch Hetchy Reservoir, is only a few miles from Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, and San Jose's camp is just on the other side of Highway 120. Also close by is Camp Tawonga, a Jewish summer camp for kids. The Rim Fire threatened to destroy all of those camps in August 2013, but Berkeley Tuolumne Camp was the only one it took.
Perhaps the clearest measure of how Berkeley and East Bay residents felt about Berkeley Tuolumne Camp over the years was the number of times they visited it in a row. At camp, it was not unusual to strike up a conversation with a fellow camper who had been coming for 10 or 20 or 30 straight summers—or even longer. Families and longtime friends also frequently arranged their summer plans to make sure they were at camp the same week together. And nearly everyone had a favorite tent cabin, perhaps along the river (sites 37-41), lower beach (45-51), or Sun City (56-63). Each of the cabins featured open-air wooden decks and beds for sleeping out under the stars.
The tranquility of camp was disarming. Situated in the mountains amid towering pines and firs, camp felt as if it were much farther away than a three-hour drive from Berkeley. It was a place to completely disconnect from the chaotic modern world—no screens, no TVs, no cellphones.
As the South Fork of the Tuolumne wends through camp, it widens into a swimming hole area, where many toddlers learned to paddle around for the first time. As kids grew older, they would hike upstream to play underneath waterfalls or float lazily downstream on inner tubes. And as kids became teens, they often ended up on the camp's staff, spending their entire summers at Tuolumne.
One of the best aspects of camp was that families could either hang out together during the day or separate, with parents taking off on their own adventures while the kids stayed behind for camp activities with the teenage staffers—like arts and crafts, nature walks, swimming, fishing, Ping-Pong, badminton, and archery.
"For parents, that's your dream," Gelfand said. "You could vacation while your kids were playing and doing activities."
Throughout the decades, the city provided scholarships to low-income families and youth for trips to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp and the city's two other camps, Echo Lake and Cazadero, or Caz, Music Camp. Martin Bourque, executive director of the Berkeley Ecology Center, said at a public meeting in November that Berkeley's summer camps changed the trajectory of his life. "I was a pretty low-income kid," he said. "When you talk about housing scarcity, I lived in 10 different apartments before I went to high school.
"I wouldn't be the leader of the Ecology Center today," he continued, "if it wasn't for Berkeley Echo Camp, where I went many summers; Caz, where I went many summers; and Tuolumne Camp, where I worked as a teenager."
The focal point of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp was the historic Dining Hall next to the river. Before meals, campers would meet at the big circle of green Adirondack chairs outside the hall, waiting for the staff to finish cooking. Inside the hall, campers congregated around large picnic tables as staffers brought out the food and made announcements about kids earning their stripes as Tuolumne Rangers. "The worst part about camping is cooking and doing the dishes, so to have someone do that for you was amazing," said Steve Geahry, a third-generation camper and former staffer.
For years, Geahry and Gelfand also wrote and choreographed the staff shows at the camp's amphitheater. They often adapted Broadway musicals or films by adding camp themes. Geahry said one of his personal favorites was their version of Aladdin at camp in 1995. "I loved being on staff," said Geahry, who is now the president of the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp board of directors. "It sounds cheesy, but it was a transformative experience."
Over the years, more than one young couple also found love at camp. Berkeley resident Ariel Nava met his wife when they were on staff together. They both grew up in Berkeley and went to Berkeley High but didn't know each other until camp. Then after they married, they started bringing their daughters to Tuolumne, just as their parents had done with them. When camp burned to the ground, they were devastated.
"It was like a death in the family," Nava said. "We all cried."
But they're determined to return to camp when it reopens.
The city of Berkeley leases the property on which Berkeley Tuolumne Camp resides from the U.S. Forest Service. And since 2014, the Forest Service has worked closely with the city, the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, and FEMA in the effort to rebuild camp in its old spot. But when new camp rises from the ashes in the years ahead, its lagyout will be quite different.
Because of federal flood-zone regulations, Camp Tuolumne will no longer feature tent cabins along the river for sleeping. Scott Tangenberg, acting forest supervisor for Stanislaus National Forest, explained in an interview that the old riverside tent cabins, including the ones on lower beach and in Sun City, a few of which survived the fire, are considered to be in the federal government's official 100-year flood zone. "Sleeping structures," he said, "should not be located within the 100-year floodplain."
As a result, all of the tent cabins will be relocated uphill, away from the river (although some will remain in their old spots for "day use"). In addition, the camp's parking area will be expanded, and staff housing will move to the other side of Hardin Flat Road, near the archery range.
But one aspect of camp that will remain unchanged is its focal point: the Dining Hall. It will be rebuilt in its old location, next to the river, with the green Adirondack chair circle alongside. "It's the heart of the camp," Gelfand said. "You can't take the heart of the camp and move it to the shoulder."
To accommodate the new layout, the U.S. Forest Service has agreed to expand the camp's footprint from about 14.5 acres to 30 acres. The Forest Service considers camp to be a true asset for the region. "We've have had an absolutely fantastic relationship, a true partnership," Tangenberg said of the Forest Service, the city, and the Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, "as interested parties who want to see this resource return to this landscape."
But for the return to happen by 2020, the city and camp activists will have to navigate several challenges. First, the city must complete a federal environmental review for its new plans for camp. And then one of the bigger environmental tasks will be the removal of all the standing dead trees that pose safety risks. According to Diana Fredlund of the Forest Service, there are 118 dead trees in camp, including many tall ones. In addition, the Forest Service expects another nine trees to die by this summer.
The Forest Service has conducted some salvage logging in the Rim Fire area, but the burn zone is massive. Tangenberg pegged the total cost of removing dead trees and reforesting the Rim Fire area at roughly $90 million. "The Forest Service doesn't currently have the money it needs to reforest the area of the fire," he said.
To rebuild camp, the city must finalize the insurance payout with its carrier, Lloyds of London. Scott Ferris, Berkeley's director of Parks and Recreation, estimated at a November public hearing that the total cost to rebuild would be about $60 million. The city expects to receive $40 million to $50 million from the insurance carrier, and then FEMA has said it will pay up to 75 percent of the remaining costs, Gelfand said. That means the city and Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp will have to come up with about $3.5 million to $5.3 million, Ferris said.
Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp has pushed to use funds from Measure T1, a $100 million infrastructure bond that Berkeley voters approved in November. But the city contends that Camp Tuolumne is not eligible for those funds because the city doesn't own the property, said Berkeley spokesperson Matthai Chakko.
Gelfand said Mayor Jesse Arreguin has promised to make funding for camp a priority. However, Arreguin did not return several phone calls seeking comment for this report. Before he left office in November, ex-Mayor Tom Bates said the city would not be able to afford the full $5 million. "We're going to need some private funds, too," he said, "because we can't do it all just with public funds."
Part of the problem is that Berkeley's two other summer camps, Echo Lake and Cazadero Music Camp, suffered storm-related damage in recent years that also require city funds to fix. But Gelfand and others point out that Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, because it was hugely popular, had historically been a money-maker for the city, subsidizing the operations of the other camps and financing scholarships for low-income youth and families. "Tuolumne has been the workhorse," Gelfand said.
Ferris pointed out at the November hearing that Tuolumne Camp was averaging 4,000 campers a summer before it burned down. "It was a devastating blow for the city of Berkeley as a whole," he said, "and also our camp program."
In the past few years, former Tuolumne family campers have gone to Echo Lake Camp, not far from South Lake Tahoe. Traditionally, Echo Lake was a youth-only summer camp, but last year, the city expanded the family camp program to five weeks. "It's been a huge success," Ferris said.
Gelfand and other camp activists say last year's experience at Echo Lake proves there's still a strong demand in Berkeley for a city-run family camp. They also argue that because the city's camp program has suffered financially since the Rim Fire, it's in Berkeley's financial interest to rebuild Camp Tuolumne as quickly as possible. "Every year that goes by is a loss of income," Gelfand said, "and a loss of history."
Disclosure: Ariel Nava is my nephew-in-law and a photographer for this publication. I began visiting Tuolumne camp in 1995.