Rim Fire devastates land near Hetch Hetchy


The Rim Fire burned more than 400 square miles of forest land and threatened the Hetch Hetchy Reservoir that stores water for nearly 2.5 million Bay Area customers. ABC7 News drove up there to see the damage.

Thick smoke filled the air over the reservoir two months ago. Nearby, hundreds of thousands of acres burned, threatening to contaminate the largest unfiltered water system in the nation. Today the scope of the damage is clear.

"Nothing bad happened to the water. The water supply from Hetch Hetchy was maintained throughout," said Steve Ritchie from the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission.

While the clean, clear water that we depend on is safe. Other parts of the Hetch Hetchy water and power system bear the scars of the third largest wildfire in state history. Only ABC7 News was on hand when water officials toured some of the worst damage caused by the Rim Fire.

The blaze started on August 17 and continues to burn today. Though the threat to life and property has passed, the fire has already caused millions of dollars in damage to the surrounding infrastructure and destroyed two small buildings.

"Overall, we're probably talking at least based on our assessment so far, roughly in the $35 million range. We could have more over time as we bring power back, we may find some more problems we need to solve," said Ritchie.

Insurance will likely pay the bulk of that bill. That includes damage to one of the hydro-electric power plants in the area. Employees were evacuated before the roof of it caught fire. It has already been repaired and is now operating at full power.

Hundreds of workers jumped in as soon as the fire passed to get the system up and running again.

"Once the fire passed through, you couldn't keep them out of the field. They were out there, looking for damage, looking for things to fix, looking for problems to solve, working 12-14 hour days," said Ritchie.

Those workers are now racing against the clock to get those jobs done before the winter snow comes.

"We have a lot of work to do to replacing our distribution poles, and power lines," said Ritchie.

There were 400-500 power poles that will need to be replaced and 20 miles of power lines relayed. That's roughly 40-percent of the poles in the area.

Hundreds of fire damaged trees are now hazards. They will need to be cut down to keep them from falling on power lines and blocking roads.

"We are no stranger to fire. It happens up here pretty much every year or something. The extent of this was incredible," said Anson Moran.

Moran is a commissioner and former general manager of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission -- the board that oversees Hetch Hetchy.

"I think that as the winter season comes and as we have rain and snow, just keeping those roads open are going to be a real challenge," said Moran.

Landslides are common after forest fires, making roads impassable and slowing the work that needs to be done. Crews are shoring up areas they suspect may be a problem.

Even though there is an enormous amount of work still to be done, there is a collective sense of relief that things eventually will return to normal.

"I think that we were very fortunate, and it's hard to say that when you see the degree of devastation," said Moran.

The Rim Fire destroyed 11 homes, three businesses, and 98 outbuildings.

Written and produced by Ken Miguel

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