Miles before you hit Priest Grade on Highway 120 you see it, blotting the Sierra right out of sight: the smoke that’s traveled 50-odd miles away from the Rim Fire in Tuolumne County and is flooding into the valleys below.
Through Groveland, you see the signs of gratitude and then you see the remnants of a powerful fire storm – trees still burning from the inside out.
And then the burned signs and virtual moonscape into Rim Fire base camp.
“There was some amazing work that went on to save that camp,” said 73-year-old firefighter Lee Bentley.
Nothing left except hillsides of black ash and the few manzanitas that didn’t incinerate.
“It was like a bomb went off, exploded,” Bentley said. “When the inversion lifted, the fog coming from the smoke, when it lifted, this fire exploded and it’s been running away ever since.
More than a week into the Rim Fire, containment is holding at 20%. Repair work is just beginning.
The fire continues to grow, threatening homes and making its mark in California’s record books. As of Tuesday evening, 184,481 acres have burned, making it the 7th largest fire in the state’s history.
“We had two DC-10’s flying this fire for at least four days. In my history, that I know of, we’ve never been in – we’ve never flown two DC-10’s. It’s hard enough to get one, let alone two,” Bentley said.
Even for a longtime firefighter Bentley, the devastation in the Stanislaus National Forest will be burned in his head for a long time.
“It’s probably the worst I’ve ever been on.”