Camp Tawonga sign
Camp Tawonga (File photo)

Oak Fire’s proximity to Camp Tawonga put some parents on edge 

When the Oak Fire erupted on July 22 and tore through the Sierra Nevada Foothills near Yosemite, Camp Tawonga was prepared. Some parents, however, felt unsettled.

“I’m worried, but not too, too worried,” one veteran Tawonga parent said last week. Ana Bagtas of Alameda has two children at the Jewish camp: Her oldest son, Ari, 21, is a counselor this summer, after going to camp every year since he was 9. And this session he’s been joined by his younger brother Lev. The 9-year-old started Tawonga on July 24, his first sleep-away camp experience.

The Oak Fire was 72 percent contained as of Aug. 1, but it had consumed more than 19,000 acres. Wildfire smoke reached far-flung regions including parts of San Francisco and Lake Tahoe.

“Fire for me, it’s very triggering,” Bagtas said, noting that she used to work in social services for Sonoma County, and witnessed the destruction caused by the 2017 Tubbs Fire. Much of URJ Camp Newman in Santa Rosa was destroyed in that fire (the camp has been largely rebuilt and reopened last year).

Ana Bagtas of Alameda, with husband Elan Chertock, and their sons Ari, 21, and Lev, 9.
Ana Bagtas of Alameda, with husband Elan Chertock and their sons Ari, 21, and Lev, 9.

Camp Tawonga fortunately was not in the fire’s path. But the flames came within 18 miles, significantly impacting the air quality just as Session 4 of camp was getting underway.

The camp monitors air quality regularly. On July 25, the first full day of the session, the index briefly spiked above 200, when it is considered unsafe to be outdoors.

“So we brought the campers into the Dining Hall where the air is filtered,” Camp Tawonga shared in a parents-only Facebook group. “Everyone wore their masks for Covid safety and campers participated in activities like playing cards and board games, making friendship bracelets, painting with watercolors and singing. We also showed a movie. Campers were relaxed and in good spirits!”

By lunchtime, the AQI was back to 176, healthy enough for campers to enjoy eating outdoors.

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

Tawonga has years of experience managing camper safety when there is wildfire smoke and poor air quality. Outdoor plans shift to activities that are more sedentary and mellow whenever the AQI exceeds 100. When it surpasses 200, campers come indoors. On July 23, the AQI rose to nearly 300, considered very unhealthy.

Bagtas said the camp’s frequent parent updates and robust fire preparedness plan kept her nerves at bay, as did check-ins with Ari on his days off when he can travel outside camp to get cellphone reception. But inevitably, she’d come across news reports about the Oak Fire, spiking her blood pressure and frequently driving her to the Cal Fire website for more information.

“I told my husband, we’ve got to stop freaking ourselves out by listening to the news,” Bagtas said.

With the air quality much improved, instead of checking the AQI every day Bagtas is now checking her mailbox, hoping Lev mails a letter home.

Emma Goss
Emma Goss

Emma Goss is a J. staff writer. She is a Bay Area native and an alum of Gideon Hausner Jewish Day School and Kehillah Jewish High School. Emma also reports for NBC Bay Area. Follow her on Twitter @EmmaAudreyGoss.