Campers Mourn Loss of Berkeley Tuolumne Camp; Camp Tawonga Saves Torah

Bay Area campers began mourning the loss of a Berkeley institution on Monday, after finding out their beloved Tuolumne Family Camp was destroyed by the Rim Fire outside Yosemite National Park.

But at a nearby Jewish camp, the community was thankful that a Holocaust-era Torah was saved and returned to its San Francisco office.

Details weren't immediately clear of exactly what time the fire – raging since Aug. 17 in the Stanislaus National Forest – demolished the Berkeley-run camp on Sunday. Each summer since 1922, campers have been flocking to the family-friendly setting where tie-dying, hiking and outdoor adventures are central components of the camp.

"We are still evaluating what are next steps are," Berkeley city spokesman Matthai Chakko said Monday. "We haven't seen the damage ourselves, but yes, it was mostly destroyed."

Chakko was not ready to put a pricetag on how much the loss would cost the city, but a family of four, with two children, could pay as much as $2,500 for seven days to stay there. Last year, 4,300 campers attended.

The U.S. Forest Service confirmed the camp, on Harden Flat, was overcome by fire, now the size of the city of Chicago. As of Monday morning, the fire had charred 149,000 acres and ranked 13 in California's history for wildfire size.

"I'm just so sad on so many levels," said Janice Lin of Berkeley, who has been going to Berkeley Tuolumne Camp with her children for years, including this summer. She spent the evening looking at photographs from her years at camp, fishing and swimming in the wildnerness, now a black, charred mess.

More than 250 people gathered Monday night in Berkeley for a memorial to honor the lost camp. Campers shared photos, memories and sang songs they learned at the family camp.

"It's kind of like a death in the family," said Harvey Kletz, a camper. "It's that much part of our family."

Ari and Rachael Nava, of Santa Cruz, created the Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp Photo Memorial Sunday night. The Facebook page is dedicated to the "years of joy and happiness that it has provided to generations of campers." The couple met at Berkeley Tuolumne Family Camp when they were teenagers and are part of a family that has attended the camp for more than five decades. 

MORE: Rim Fire Chars 225 Square Miles, Destroys Berkeley Tuolumne Camp

Nearby, Camp Tawonga suffered one structure fire over the weekend. On the camp's Facebook page, directors said that one staff building had burned, but as of Monday morning, there were no new reports of damage.

The camp was thrilled to report that one of its counselors, Sam Quintana, was able to retrieve the Jewish holy book, or the Torah, on Friday and bring it to safety at the camp's San Francisco headquarters.

The Torah traveled from Evergreen Lodge near the Rim Fire, to a spot in Manteca, and then finally to the camp office after a ride on BART.

The Torah is a remnant from the Holocaust. It was originally saved from a small Czech village during World War II.

"We're so thrilled it is safe," Camp Tawonga director Jamie Simon-Harris told NBC Bay Area on Monday.

As far as Simon knows, the rest of the camp property is safe, because she hasn't heard otherwise.

"But we just don't know at this point," she said. "We've been told that the building protection was successful."

Camp Tawonga suffered another loss this summer. On July 3, 20-year-old counselor Annais Rittenberg died after a black oak snapped and fell on top of her.

As of Sunday night, the Friends of San Francisco's Camp Mather said their camp was safe, as was San Jose Camp and Evergreen Lodge. However, the City of San Jose announced Monday its Family Camp at Yosemite will be closed for the rest of the season due to safety concerns related to the fire.

Editor's Note: Lisa Fernandez attended Berkeley Tuolumne Camp and has children who attend Camp Tawonga. Her nephew and niece started the photo memorial page on Facebook.

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