Rising from the Ashes
Advocates for Berkeley Tuolumne Camp are pushing the city to reopen the popular family camp by 2020. But they’ll have to navigate several challenges.
The historic Dining Hall was the heart of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp.
Courtesy of Tim Messick
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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.
There’s no place like Camp Tuolumne . . .
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.
Courtesy of FOBTC
The Rim Fire was the third largest in California history.
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.