Brigitte Bowers: Residents reach out to thank firefighters

Editor’s Note: The second in a three-part series

At the Yosemite Pines Resort store, about 10 miles east of Groveland on Highway 120, cashier Tina Yates tells me that when she and her co-workers evacuated on Aug. 21, four days into the Rim fire, they believed they would return to a campground resort ruined by vandals and thieves and scarred by fire.

Instead, the only damage when they returned days later had been caused by a power outage: They lost everything in the freezer.

Tina seems unusually upbeat for someone who has just witnessed miles of devastation wrought by a fire so close to her home that she is, in fact, surprised she still has one. “Hats off to those guys,” she says about the firefighters.

Everywhere I go, people tell me about the extraordinary work of the firefighters. There were no deaths, and only 10 relatively minor injuries, in a fire that torched 257,134 acres. In that entire conflagration, only 11 homes were lost.

At the resort store, where I buy a soda and beef jerky, Tina tells me about standing atop a ridge on Sawmill Road off Highway 120, a few miles west of our location, and watching the fire advance. I leave the resort store and drive west on 120, then turn off on Sawmill Road, where I see houses and cabins intact in the middle of a charred forest.

Though the flames are gone, the smell of smoke lingers. As I drive down Sawmill, I see a couple moving back into their house and a forest crew clearing burned trees next to the road.

Something that looks like the pelt of a burned squirrel is stuck to a gate, but I can’t be sure since so little of the creature is left.

I continue west toward Rainbow Pools, where my brother and I swam when we were kids. I pull over past the bridge that traverses the south fork of the Tuolumne River. This is the turnoff to Rainbow Pools, but the road is still closed and it seems somehow disrespectful to those who have battled so hard against this fire to disregard their authority now, and so I decide not to drive around the barrier.

I don’t really want to see Rainbow Pools, anyway. Everyone I ask tells me the pines and manzanita are all gone, that there is nothing left there except the river itself, a gray ribbon winding through a ruined landscape.

Farther west, at the Rim of the World Vista, I park and get out. I peer at the river tumbling along the ravine below. At the side of the road, looking over the thousands of acres of mountain terrain stretching before me, I can appreciate but still not fully grasp the immense undertaking of fighting this fire from the ground.

I overhear a German family murmuring about the fire. “It isn’t really like this,” I want to tell them. “This is really supposed to be green for as far as your eyes can see.” But then I realize that this is the new vista, the one that will be here for generations to come.

On my way back to Merced, I decide to turn off at the Greeley Hill junction at Smith Station Road. On this road, there are no signs of the fire that ravaged the countryside only a few miles away. Residents have posted signs along the highway expressing their gratitude to firefighters.

“We love you, firefighters!” declare some of the signs. Others say, simply, “Thank you, firefighters.”

As I drive, the forest gives way to pastures and then I am in the town of Greeley Hill, where I get out and talk to Susan Burkett, who is on break from her job at Greeley Hill Market. When I ask her about how close the fire was to them, she tells me that it kept jumping the fire breaks and would have come into Greeley Hill were it not for the valiant efforts of the firefighters.

“Some people saw trees just exploding. Those firefighters kicked butt,” she says, adding that the Forest Service kept residents apprised of the fire by posting information on the Market bulletin board. “It shut down the preschool and delayed elementary school for about three weeks, mostly because of the air quality.”

But like other residents I have encountered this day, Burkett feels both lucky and hopeful.

“It could have been so much worse,” she said. “Probably our grandkids won’t see it, but it’s all going to grow back.”

I contemplate this on the ride home. I have for years been promising to take my sons to Rainbow Pools so they could jump from the granite cliff into the pond below and swim through the waterfall to the cave behind it, but now the place I have been describing to my children all of these years is gone.

If I ever take them to Rainbow Pools, it will not be the place that I remember.