Camp cabins
Camper cabins at Camp Tawonga, a Jewish overnight summer camp near Yosemite. (Photo/file)

‘Spared no expense’: Local Jewish camps ace fire prep

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Every day, Ari Vared walks the grounds of Camp Newman, often passing by a towering redwood tree standing at the center of the 500-acre site. Vared, the camp’s executive director, says the tree still bears the burn marks of the Tubbs Fire, which destroyed almost everything on the site in October 2017.

The scarred but still-standing redwood serves as a reminder of what happened to the camp, located in the hills near Santa Rosa. It’s something Vared has vowed will never happen again.

URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa, one year after the summer camp was largely destroyed by fire (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)
URJ Camp Newman in Oct. 2018, one year after the summer camp was largely destroyed by fire (Photo/Courtesy URJ Camp Newman)

After the devastation incinerated 81 of its 90 structures, Camp Newman, which is affiliated with the Reform movement, commissioned a fire protection plan drawn up by independent fire prevention experts. Vared said that as of now, every single recommendation in that 90-page report has been implemented.

“It covered everything from [fireproof] building materials to human-life safety to property safety,” Vared said. “We took that plan, gave it to our architect and contractors, worked with arborists, and we also handed it to our professional team to create a fire safety plan. We’ve been implementing it every year.”

Man smiling
Ari Vared

Vared said the camp has “spared no expense” when it comes to fire preparation. Since the Tubbs Fire, according to Vared, Camp Newman has secured $79 million for rebuilding and improvements from private donors, insurance and state funds.

Before the Newman campus reopened last year, the camp spent almost $40 million on reconstruction and fire mitigation, including $1 million on forest management efforts. Destroyed by the fire and completely rebuilt was a $4 million conference center that had only just opened when the fire struck.

By now, $50 million has been spent, and after camp ends this summer, contractors will roll in to start on a 28-bedroom lodge for adult retreats, conferences and family camp. Vared said all buildings now have fireproof metal roofs, fireproof eaves and sprinklers inside and outside.

“We have a huge amount of defensible space,” he said. “We replanted trees, including native oaks, and increased the distance between them to slow the spread of fire. And we added more water on-site.”

The water supply available to fight fires features three tanks totaling 260,000 gallons, as well as a pool and other sources. Vared said Sonoma County fire experts told him that Camp Newman had “one of the most significant water supplies in the area.”

At Camp Tawonga, located in the Sierras near Yosemite National Park, fire is similarly an ever-present concern. In 2013, the Rim Fire scorched some structures on the 160-acre campus, while the Ferguson Fire of 2018 forced an evacuation of the camp due to heavy smoke. 

Tawonga CEO Jamie Simon said the camp leadership is always looking to enhance fire prevention and safety on-site.

“We do fuel reduction projects every year,” Simon told J. “We have a forestry working group that includes orchard experts, and we have CalFire advising us. We spent $150,000 on fuel reduction this year, taking down dead trees, moving brush and creating defensible space around every structure.”

Jamie Simon
Jamie Simon

Tawonga also completed a project to bury PG&E power lines underground, as those lines in the past have sparked wildfires, including the devastating Dixie Fire that burned nearly 1 million acres across five Northern California counties in 2021. Costs for the Tawonga project were divided between the camp and PG&E, but Tawonga had to raise $1.5 million to cover its share of the expense.

“We were able to make it happen,” Simon added. “It makes it prettier at camp. The views are incredible now that the lines are underground, and of course it’s safer, too.”

Every June for the past 20 years, Tawonga has engaged in what Simon called a neighborhood round table with the Forest Service, CalFire, neighbors, the CHP and county sheriffs. She said the various parties do a walk-through and make sure the camp is ready for fire season.

Fortunately for Tawonga and Camp Newman, financial support has not been lacking when it comes to fire prep. 

The Jewish community, as well as the State of California, have come through with funds to help rebuild and mitigate future fire danger. Tawonga recently announced it surpassed its goal of $17 million in a capital campaign drive. Newman benefited from a $12 million reconstruction grant from the state and another $10 million from an anonymous donor.

But the increased fire danger that drought-plagued California faces has triggered unexpected spikes in costs for the camps, including insurance. “Our insurance has increased exorbitantly,” Simon noted. “We were paying about $150,000 a year in 2018, and now it’s over $1 million.”

Vared confirmed that Camp Newman, too, now pays a seven-figure annual insurance bill, which amounts to “almost 20 percent of our budget,” he said. Because they own the land they occupy, Newman and Tawonga are on the hook for covering those skyrocketing insurance premiums.

The camps have not had to go through this alone. Vared said he has been in close contact with owners of nearby vineyards and private homes to make sure everyone is ready for fire season.

“I am continually blown away by the local professionals, including the fire chiefs,” Vared said. “I’m in constant cellphone contact with one of them. They’re so good. The response time of Sonoma County [first responders] is leading the country. We live in a community now very fire aware, and very focused on safety precautions.”

Summer at Newman is underway, and so far Vared says all he sees are happy campers. He reported 350 new campers this year and the highest year-over-year camper retention rate in several years. Moreover, the newly rebuilt retreat center is more than 90 percent booked through the end of 2022.

“The mood is one of joy,” Vared said. “We’re not just rebuilding a summer camp. We’re building a year-round facility for immersive Jewish living and learning. That’s where the excitement is coming from.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is a contributing editor at J. He was a longtime staff writer at J. and retired as news editor in 2020.