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Wildfire in Yosemite area leaves camp visitors bereft

Fire crews line up along Highway 120 at the Rim Fire in this undated United States Forest Service handout photo near Yosemite National Park,
Fire crews line up along Highway 120 at the Rim Fire in this undated United States Forest Service handout photo near Yosemite National Park,

By Jonathan Kaminsky

(Reuters) - Last month, Lance Batten was walking the trails around Berkeley Tuolumne Camp in the Sierra Nevada mountain range in California, singing the familiar songs of his summertime refuge going back 26 years.

This week, the 62-year-old retired computer programmer sat in his Berkeley, California, home reflecting on the damage the monstrous fire inflicted in recent days when it destroyed a large swath of the timeless spot in the woods that Batten remembers so fondly.

He had taken his children to the camp when they were small and in July he brought his grandchildren.

"It's not just the memories. A piece of your life is wiped out and gone," Batten said in a telephone interview. "No matter what happens it will never be the same."

The so-called Rim Fire, which has burned nearly 184,500 acres, continues to push into Yosemite National Park while threatening 4,500 homes along its northwestern flank. As of Tuesday night, it was 20 percent contained.

In addition to ravaging the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp, it has also claimed at least one cabin in Camp Tawonga, a Jewish camp about 8 miles north inside the Stanislaus National Forest.

The structures of other nearby camps remain untouched by the blaze, the Tuolumne County Sheriff's Office spokesman, Sergeant Scott Johnson, said on Tuesday.

But at the Berkeley Tuolumne Camp, most of the buildings - which include 72 tent-top cabins and a communal dining hall - have been destroyed, said Berkeley city spokesman Matthai Chakko. The 91-year-old, heavily-wooded camp was a summertime refuge for families across northern California, and particularly for residents of Berkeley, who enjoyed priority in reserving space there, Chakko said.

The camp had been fully booked for the rest of the summer, Chakko noted, and its occupants were evacuated five days before the fire came.

Faring better but still not out of danger was Camp Tawonga, which caters to both secular and religious Jewish youth and has occupied its 160 acres since 1964.

The camp's primary season ended shortly before the fire, so only six staff members were forced to flee, taking with them the camp's decades-old Torah scroll - the Jewish holy text - which survived the Holocaust. Also evacuated was a tome dating to the 1980s in which campers recorded their summertime memories.

Camp Tawonga, most of whose buildings sit on a meadow that is more easily defended by firefighters than are woodlands, lost one cabin in the blaze. The extent of the damage to other parts of the camp, including its garden and arts-and-crafts area, is not known, said camp director Jamie Simon.

"We feel cautiously optimistic," Simon said in a telephone interview. "We're grateful to the firefighters for all the work they've done so far."

(Reporting by Jonathan Kaminsky in Olympia, Washington, Editing by Alex Dobuzinskis, Peter Cooney and Ken Wills)

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