Camp Tawonga loses several structures to forest fire

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Camp Tawonga last week became ground zero for a massive firefighting crew as two sleeping cabins, a nature center and an outdoor kitchen went up in flames in an intense forest fire.

The camp's own firefighting system helped allay further damage.

On Tuesday of last week, firefighters fought for control of the western front of the forest fire near Tawonga, a Jewish camp and retreat center that sits on a bend of the Tuolumne River in the Stanislaus National Forest, not far from Yosemite.

But on the following day, the fire took an unexpected turn and leaped into the camp. More than a dozen fire engines and several bulldozers plus hundreds of firefighters worked frantically to stave off further damage.

"Wednesday afternoon it was hellacious. It happened very fast," said Ken Kramarz, executive director of Tawonga, speaking by phone from the camp.

Kramarz decided to drive up to see the camp on Wednesday of last week, after being told the site was safe. He arrived on scene just as the flames ripped through the buildings.

"It was definitely a nail biter," said Katy Coulter, a Stanislaus National Forest spokesperson.

"The firefighters knew it was coming. They were there and planning on it all along. The fire was moving northeast and Camp Tawonga was right in the way."

Bulldozers cleared the brush from the camp area and firefighters lit back fires to scorch any fuel the fire might later engulf. No further harm was done to the camp by the extinguishing efforts.

No campers were at Tawonga. The last children's summer session had ended three days before the fire started.

Firefighters had the camp area under control in a few hours. The blaze continued to rage on other fronts for several days and was finally fully under control on Sunday.

"Firefighters are the greatest people," Kramarz said. "They made it clear they would do everything for Camp Tawonga. We appreciate the priority the forest service gave us."

Kramarz would not speculate this week on the monetary costs of the damages. The camp's insurance representatives had not yet investigated the site.

"What we lost entirely was our teen village and nature center where we conduct our teen leadership institute. It was all was burnt to the ground," Kramarz said.

More than 4,000 acres in Northern California have been scorched in the forest fire. Its cause is still under investigation.

Damage to Tawonga would have been much worse had the camp not installed $150,000 worth of firefighting equipment two years ago. The S.F.-based Jewish Community Federation's Endowment Fund had granted the money after a previous blaze came perilously near the camp.

Tawonga's firefighting system, which included pumps, hoses and hydrants, "was used to save the forest," Kramarz said. "If that wasn't here, I don't know what would have happened."

While he was at the camp last week, Kramarz said trees were still smoldering and isolated flames were still burning within viewing distance. The fire pockets will continue to burn out for several weeks.

Fire crews used Tawonga as a base during most of last week. Exhausted teams taking breaks from the fire front would rest for a few hours at the camp, where meals were cooked.

A few of Tawonga's staff stayed at camp to make cookies and lemonade and do other odd jobs for the firefighters.

Tawonga had to cancel an adult session last weekend. But the camp staff is gearing up enthusiastically to host more than 200 young adults for Labor Day weekend.

"People who are going to come up are going to have a thrill," Kramarz said. "It's not often you get a chance see the fire burning and still be safe."