Rim Fire burns three buildings at Camp Tawonga

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As the huge Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park continued to burn this week, officials at nearby Camp Tawonga expressed happiness, noting that although the surrounding forest was severely damaged, and that Tawonga itself lost three buildings, “Tawonga still feels like Tawonga.”

“We are thrilled that in this record-breaking forest fire, Tawonga lost only three of its 71  buildings, and our land continues to be a lush, green oasis of natural beauty,” executive director Ken Kramarz and camp director Jamie Simon-Harris wrote in a Thursday, Aug. 29 email to board members, parents, alumni and others associated with the camp.

For most of the week, Tawonga officials had believed only one building had burned — a cabin that provided staff housing on the perimeter of the camp’s main area.

photos/camp tawonga facebook page Camp Tawonga in the foreground of the massive wildfire

However, according the the letter, “our Advance Team walked the land of Camp Tawonga” on Aug. 28 and saw additional damage.

“The three buildings lost in the fire were Manzanita 6 and 8 (staff housing), and the Bayit (Ken’s house),” the letter stated. “In addition to these structures, there was significant — though completely reparable — damage to the Ropes Course and Makom Shalom. While there are no guarantees, Strike Team leader John Sinclair felt that camp was now safe and not at risk for further damage from the Rim Fire.”

The Rim Fire started Aug. 17 in Stanislaus County west of Yosemite, and swept through the rugged terrain in and around Groveland, the town closest to Tawonga. It  destroyed the Berkeley Tulomne Family Camp in Groveland and continued this week to threaten thousands of homes as well as parts of Yosemite proper. In an email letter sent Aug. 27, Tawonga officials noted a U.S. Forest Service ranger as being “optimistic that the fire would not come back into Tawonga,” but added, “there are no guarantees in wildfires.” The Aug. 29 letter put that possibility to rest.

Counselor Sam Quintana after transporting the Camp Tawonga Torah to the camp’s San Francisco headquarters

When the fire began, there were no campers on site; Tawonga staff evacuated soon thereafter.

Among the items taken away from the site was the camp’s Torah, a Holocaust-era relic from the Czech town of Vodnany. “We could only grab a few things,” Simon-Harris said in an interview. “The first thing was the Torah.”

The Torah traveled from a lodge near Yosemite to Tawonga’s headquarters in San Francisco, where it is being kept temporarily.

Tawonga officials this week decided to cancel Fall Family Camp, slated for Sept. 19-22.The annual Keshet LGBTQ Family Camp planned for the Aug. 22-25 was canceled, as was the four-day Summertime Family Camp over the Labor Day weekend.

Camp Tawonga officials have been updating the camp’s Facebook page on a regular basis, both with pictures and with information, as well as sending out email letters.

In one Facebook posting, Kramarz noted that downed power lines, fallen trees and “active fire” had made the last 1 1⁄2 miles of road to the camp impassable.

Another post read, “Many Tawongans have asked how they can help support the brave firefighters who continue to battle the Rim Fire. If you would like to send cards and messages of support, please mail them to our San Francisco office and we will put together a package for them. Thank you!”

Another read, “Our hearts break for our neighbors at Friends of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp who suffered devastating losses.”

One user posted the message, “Stay safe Tawonga! We love you!”

The Aug. 29 letter heralded the lack of significant damage at Tawonga. “Forest Service officials say this is largely due to our diligent stewardship of the land, which includes annual camper Forestry Tikkuns, this winter’s dredging of the lake (enabling Firefighting helicopters to fill their 500-gallon buckets), thinning and masticating our wooded perimeter, and constructing 220,000 gallons of water storage and fire hydrants,” the letter stated, adding “Every camper, staff, board member and supporter who has helped in these successes should feel very proud!”

The letter continued:

“The roads to camp remain closed to the public so that firefighters can bravely continue to contain the fire that has spread into Yosemite. This required us to cancel our three Family Camp weekends. We are collecting thank you notes for the firefighters, so please send your cards and letters to us at 131 Steuart Street, Suite 460, SF, 94105.

“It is amazing but true that while the surrounding forest was severely damaged, Tawonga still feels like Tawonga, and from the many vantage points throughout the main parts of camp, it looks as it always has, with green fields, tall trees and charming, quaint cabins. In the words of U.S. Forest Service District Ranger Maggie Dowd, ‘Camp Tawonga is a success story!’

“We are already making plans for rebuilding and replanting and are confident that that when we re-open in the spring of 2014, Tawonga will continue to be a spiritual and physical oasis for youth, young adults and families.

“It is important for Tawongans to continue to gather during the time we have no access to camp itself. You are all invited to join us for Erev Rosh Hashanah services on Wednesday, September 4 at 3:30 PM at Mineral Springs in Tilden Park. We will come together as a community, share our Holocaust surviving Torah rescued from the fire, and launch the beginning of a sweet new year by celebrating everything for which we are grateful. For more information about this event, and to RSVP, email [email protected].”

In addition, a “Fire Recovery Fund” has been started.

“We will continue to keep you informed of our financial needs for rebuilding and replanting” the letter stated, “and how you can help. If you feel so inclined today, you can show your support for Tawonga by making a tax-deductible donation at this link.”