Forest Service: Hunter started Rim fire

kvaline@modbee.comSeptember 5, 2013 

A helicopter drops its orange load of fire retardant on a southern portion of the Rim Fire burning on a ridge near the community of Greeley Hill Sunday evening (09-01-13).

ELIAS FUNEZ — Modesto Bee

— Authorities say a hunter's fire started the Rim conflagration, which has burned 237,341 acres, closed a major entrance into Yosemite National Park and dried up the steady steam of vacationers, day-trippers and visitors to this tourism-dependent county.

The U.S. Forest Service issued a news release Thursday stating that a hunter allowed a fire to get out of control Aug. 17, starting what has become the fourth-largest wildfire in California history.

The Rim fire is at 80 percent containment. About a quarter of the fire has burned inside Yosemite.

The release said the hunter was not growing marijuana, and marijuana operations were not found where the fire started. It had been speculated that a marijuana operation was responsible for the fire. No arrests have been made, and the hunter's name was not released.

The release does not state what the person was hunting, but Aug. 17 was the start of the archery deer hunting season in the forest. The fire was in a remote area near Groveland in the Stanislaus National Forest. An official with the Groveland Ranger Station said campfires were not permitted in that part of the forest Aug. 17.

Officials with the Forest Service and the Tuolumne County district attorney's office, which is assisting in the investigation, refused to comment on the case.

The U.S. Forest Service website states that someone starting a forest fire can be charged for the cost of fighting the fire, as well as being charged with a misdemeanor, fined as much as $5,000 and imprisoned for up to six months.

It has cost $81 million to fight the wildfire. More than 3,900 firefighters and other personnel are assigned to it, down from more than 5,100 about a week ago.

The fire has destroyed 11 homes, three commercial buildings and 97 outbuildings. Authorities issued several thousand advisory evacuations for the Groveland area and for Tuolumne City and communities northeast of it along Highway 108.

The fire has choked tourism. Visitors spend more than $200 million annually in Tuolumne County, said Nanci Sikes, executive director of the Tuolumne County Visitors Bureau.

She said it's the No. 1 private industry in this county of roughly 55,000 residents, with 2,170 employees as of about a year ago.

Tourists have stopped coming because Highway 120 — a main route to Yosemite — is closed past Groveland, and because of the smoke from the wildfire.

Smoke has blanketed much of the county at times, causing officials to warn the young, elderly and those with respiratory ailments to stay inside when the air quality is bad.

Pinecrest General Store owner Dan Vaughn said business nose-dived at Pinecrest Lake after the Rim fire started, with about 75 percent of the people who had reserved campsites and lodging at the lake canceling their reservations.

Vaughn said the air quality around Pinecrest is getting better, and he hopes that will enable the annual return of retirees who come to the lake in September and October after parents and their children have left for the season.

Corinna Loh, whose family owns the Iron Door Saloon and Grill in Groveland, said she hopes European tourists make their annual trek here in the next couple of months, which will help salvage the damage from the Rim fire. She also hopes for a quick reopening of Highway 120.

A California Department of Transportation spokeswoman said no date has been set, but officials will examine the highway this morning.

"The town is very worried," Loh said about the wildfire's impact on tourism, adding that business is down 95 percent at her establishment.

But she said she and other business owners are staying positive and getting the word out that they are open. "We're trying to keep our heads up," she said.

Modesto Bee staff writer Kevin Valine can be reached at kvaline@modbee.com or (209) 578-2316.

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