Camps & kids | After fire, a healing year for Tawonga

Jamie Simon-Harris will welcome a new camper to Camp Tawonga this summer: her 4-month-old son, Ezra. With his mom serving as Tawonga’s camp director, baby Ezra will enjoy the mountain air on this, his first summer.

Ezra is too young to know about last summer’s horrific Rim Fire, which devastated 250,000 acres in Stanislaus County, including parts of Yosemite and Tawonga itself.

Smoke billows just beyond Camp Tawonga during last summer’s massive Rim Fire near Yosemite. photo/camp tawonga facebook page

The Rim Fire started Aug. 17 west of Yosemite and swept through the rugged terrain in and around Groveland, the town closest to Tawonga. It destroyed the Berkeley Tulomne Family Camp in Groveland, burning for months.

In all, 11 homes and 100 other structures were destroyed before firefighters declared full containment in late October. Much of the countryside still resembles a moonscape. “The view is really sad,” Simon-Harris says. “The last 10 miles of the drive are completely burned.”

Flames also torched the perimeter of the 160-acre camp, though sparing a majority of its structures. But Simon-Harris says much repair work has been done to get camp ready for the June 15 opening day.

“The main camp is fine,” she says, “but the riverside and ridge were burned. We had to do a lot of work on trees. Every tree was assessed; then we took the most conservative recommendations.”

That meant calling in certified arborists and culling 10 percent of the trees on Tawonga property. Those that suffered fire damage or were deemed potentially unsafe had to go.

Simon-Harris says the camp’s Rope Challenge Course, Makom Shalom (the outdoor sanctuary) and some river trails had to be rebuilt. Replanting and reseeding are also part of the plan.

In addition, the camp hired a professional restoration company to scrub down the property top to bottom, eliminating the acrid smell of smoke from the camp.

“They took care of everything,” she adds. “They washed the clothes and carpets, sprayed down the buildings. Camp has never been cleaner.”

In the wake of the fire, the U.S. Fire Service has indefinitely closed to the public all roads leading to the camp. However, permits will be issued to buses carrying campers and to parents dropping off or picking up their kids, so access to the camp entrance will be unfettered.

Over its four sessions this summer, Tawonga will welcome 1,200 campers. Though the fire caused enormous damage, forests do regenerate. Simon-Harris and the Tawonga staff will take advantage of that and seize a teachable moment.

“Our newest programming this summer is related to the fire,” she says. “It’s all about ecology and forest restoration education. For our backpack trips, some locations are closed, so now we will be going to new locations and show campers parts of Yosemite they haven’t seen.”

Fire was not the only trauma the Tawonga community suffered in 2013. Last July, 21-year-old art teacher Annais Rittenberg died when a section of an oak tree snapped and fell on her. The accident devastated campers and staffers alike.

With the passing of a year, however, Simon-Harris hopes summer 2014 will be a time of healing, Tawonga style.

“Judaism and spirituality are infused in everything we do,” she says. “This is a healing year for staff and campers. We still have a lot of healing to do and we’ll definitely think about that in the ways we train staff and do programming.”

Dan Pine

Dan Pine is J.'s news editor. He can be reached at