Firefighters finally began to get a handle on the massive Rim Fire near Yosemite National Park, but not before the blaze destroyed one popular Bay Area family camp and damaged another.
Berkeley officials said the fire incinerated the city's popular high Sierra camp on Sunday while San Jose canceled the rest of its season just miles away, after the blaze scorched about a dozen cabins.
For generations of Bay Area campgoers, news of the destruction brought the fire home.
"Our family is feeling pretty devastated because we have so many happy memories there, and it was a place we always look forward to returning," said David Kojan, one of many Berkeley natives who cherished visits with his wife and two young sons to the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp just west of Yosemite.
Overnight into Tuesday, the fire grew to about 180,000 acres, or 280 square miles, after gobbling up another 20,000 acres compared to late Monday. The fire containment on Monday tripled to 20 percent but remained steady overnight into Tuesday.
The Rim Fire finally hit the source of the Hetch Hetchy water system in Yosemite, though water quality was not immediately harmed. However, the one encouraging sign is that the blaze was spreading twice as slowly compared to last week.
Still, the stubborn fire became the largest active wildfire in the United States and the 7th-largest in the state's recorded history dating back 81 years.
As the cost of the fire topped $27 million, President Barack Obama pledged federal resources in a call to Gov. Jerry Brown, who on Monday visited with some of the firefighters battling the biggest of California's nearly dozen major wildfires burning from Eureka to Los Angeles, stretching resources amid peak wildfire season. Brown said "the firefighters have a real challenge on their hands" but promised to "get it done" with the money and manpower available.
"Whatever it takes, I'm going to make sure the resources are deployed," Brown said at a news conference in Tuolumne.
On Monday, the Rim Fire moved within a mile of the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir in Yosemite, the source of water for 2.6 million Bay Area residents and businesses. Though most of the infrastructure is fire-resistant, such as underground steel pipes and the concrete O'Shaughnessy Dam, officials remain concerned that ash will dirty the water.
But the reservoir is already just about full, and crews have built up several months of back-up water supply, said Charles Sheehan, a spokesman for the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission. The utility also sped up by 10 percent its transfer of water from Yosemite to 302 million gallons a day to other reservoirs in hopes of building up an even bigger supply.
Though the fire has not affected water quality yet, Sheehan said if it does get contaminated and the back-up supply is exhausted, the utility can buy water from other agencies such as the Santa Clara Valley Water District and the East Bay Municipal Utility District.
"There would be no change in water quality and no interruption in service," under any of those scenarios, Sheehan said. It's unclear how buying extra water could affect customers' water bills, he said.
Containment of the Rim Fire surged as the dirt lines dug by firefighters around the perimeter and constant air drops of water and retardant finally started to pay off.
"Slowly but surely, we are making progress," said Cal Fire spokesman Daniel Berlant.
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But it was too late to save the city-run Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp just west of Yosemite, which first opened 91 years ago for $1 a day and 60 cents for children. Famed architect Bernard Maybeck was one of the locals dispatched to the area to finalize the site, news reports at the time said.
The fire burned most of the 80 buildings, including 72 tent cabins, city spokesman Matthai Chakko said.
Crews were able to save many historical items such as documents and photographs, but it was of little solace to local families.
Stephanie Agnew, a Berkeley resident who started going to the camp six years ago when her son was 3, said her family is "heartbroken."
"How do you ever get back what you had there?" Agnew said Monday. "It was in the most beautiful setting."
The San Jose-run Family Camp east of Groveland, neighbors to the Berkeley camp, also saw 14 of its 67 tents destroyed. On Monday, the city canceled the rest of its camping season, which was set to last through October. Two ATVs, water well infrastructure and one out-building were also reduced to ashes.
Last week, crews evacuated 110 Berkeley high school students and staff who were staying at the 47-acre San Jose camp. The fire approached so quickly that students had to leave food they were preparing on kitchen counters.
But crews expect to rebuild and open in time for the next season in April, said San Jose Parks Superintendent Art Catbagan -- as long as the fire cooperates. He said workers are constantly dousing spot fires there, some of which have reignited 20 minutes after being extinguished.
"We believe that the worst of it is done because the fire has moved away," Catbagan said.
Over the last week, the San Francisco-based Jewish summer camp, Camp Tawonga, and the city of San Francisco-run Camp Mather also evacuated.
The Rim Fire now threatens 5,506 structures -- including 4,500 homes, 1,000 outbuildings and six commercial buildings -- in rural Tuolumne County after destroying 111 structures -- 31 homes and 80 outbuildings -- since the fire started on Aug. 17. A small section of the Yosemite back country on the western edge of the park has also burned, but tourist destinations remain open.
About 3,800 firefighters, including crews from the Bay Area, are battling the blaze, which has resulted in two injuries and has prompted smoke to drift as far away as Lake Tahoe and Reno. The cause of the fire remains under investigation.