Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Battalion Chief Michael Miller says that during one point in his journey to the base camp for the Rim Fire, the fourth-largest wildfire in California's history, the smoke was so heavy he almost had to get out of the engine and walk in front of it to see the road.
Miller was one of the firefighters from the Livermore-Pleasanton Fire Department sent to support the efforts to control the fire in the Yosemite area that started on Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest, burning 256,895 acres.
Miller left Livermore on Aug. 21 with fire personnel from Colma, Moraga/Orinda, El Cerrito, Alameda County and East Bay Regional Parks for an 11-day deployment as part a strike team sent for the statewide mutual aid plan to help with the fire.
Upon arriving to the area, Miller says the team was met with sobering news about the wildfire.
"The base camp where we were staying had already burned twice," Miller said. "The fire had simply overrun the camp."
Miller says that for the first two days of their assignment, after they arrived at base camp and checked in, were spent at Pine Mountain Lake outside of Yosemite. The team was later moved to a staging area for structure protection, dealing with brush and running hose. According to Miller, fires like the Rim Fire can "spot" and throw embers up to a mile away in timber areas.
While at Pine Mountain Lake, Miller says people were still out by the lake on vacation, enjoying the 80 degree temperatures, while watching the views of the smoke and resulting weather changes above it.
Eventually the strike team was assigned to the Berkeley's Tuolumne Camp. The 92-year-old camp was well-known throughout the Bay Area as a recreation area for families.
"Just as we were getting in there, the main body of fire passed through the camp and they had to send us back out to protect other structures," Miller said. "We returned to protect 10 to 15 cabins."
Miller describes the cabins at the camp as being made of wood and canvas.
"We laid a lot of hose and put out a lot of fires," Miller commented.
The strike team spent their final days along Highway 120, moving into Yosemite National Park to protect the Visitor's Center.
Miller recalls the most stressful moments at the fire not having to do with what he could see but what he could hear— especially during the night shifts when visibility was even more limited.
"The biggest eye opener for me were the heavy trees or 'snags' suddenly falling at random in the forest after burning," Miller said. "You would just hear a tree fall. It was nerve-wracking not knowing where the snags were coming from when I was sending a team out there."
Miller, who shared photos and updates with worried residents while he was there, says those living in the areas near the fire posted signs along the highway thanking all of the fire crews.