In 1851, the Grizzly Flats gold rush settlement in California was established. The woods kept those who had come for the gold. Sierra Nevada foothill communities were long-established on the lumber from their luxuriant woods.
Then, on an August night in 2021, the Caldor Fire erupted from the Eldorado National Forest, and Grizzly Flats vanished in less than 15 minutes.
The community’s rage is still visceral today. Many locals accuse the U.S. Forest Service of allowing a little fire to grow into a terrifying conflagration.
We discovered evidence of Forest Service mismanagement throughout our months-long study, which supports the claims of opponents who claim that the agency’s outmoded methods and overgrown lands have caused millions of acres and foothill villages to burn unnecessarily.
We traveled to Grizzly Flats to see firsthand what transpired on the August night when a wall of fire tore through the community.
Candace Tyler: I snapped a few photos of my home, knowing it was the final time I would ever see it.
William Whitaker Did you know that?
Candace Tyler: You know your destiny when hot embers are showering down on you, your friends’ and family’s homes are bursting, and you are listening to it all. There is nothing standing between you and them.
On August 17, when the Caldor Fire tore through the Eldorado National Forest and destroyed the family ranch, Candance Tyler’s whole life went up in flames.
William Whitaker Where was your home then?
Candace Tyler: Our bedroom would have been right here. And this would have been entering our dining room over here.
On this hilltop, the Tyler family has resided for five generations. Their homestead is now a scorched wasteland. Blackened trees watch over a realm of shadows like sentinels. The Tyler family and their two kids have been in a trailer for more than a year.
In a matter of minutes, more than 600 homes—nearly all of Grizzly Flats—were destroyed. More than 200,000 acres were burned during the two-month Caldor Fire, which cost $271 million to put out.
William Whitaker Did you think the Forest Service would manage it when it initially started? Would you light it?
Caitlin Tyler Absolutely. Without a doubt. You can’t put out a 40-acre fire in a canyon, can you? Do not misunderstand; I have lived here all my life.
You’re still telling me that you lack the skills and tools necessary to put out the fire despite the fact that I am aware that it is a dangerously steep canyon? They took no action. They did nothing, in our perspective, to put out this fire.
A minor smoke plume called Caldor first appeared four miles south of Grizzly Flats. August 14 at 7:00 p.m. Since this was federal property, the U.S. Forest Service was in command and in charge of mobilizing resources and firemen.
We found that issues began straight away: maps weren’t current, and firefighters had difficulties locating the fire. Candance Tyler informed us that while she was listening to her police scanner, her heart plummeted.
Caitlin Tyler They are being transported down Caldor Road. It’s been wiped out for three years, after all. How are you going to transport a tanker there? Do you recognize the washout? It’s really large. It would need a month of Sundays to repair the damage or pave a new route.
We got to the location Tyler was referring about. A significant portion of the Forest Service’s mission is to preserve the health of national forests, particularly their roads.
However, we discovered that many of the routes in the Eldorado Forest were inaccessible, obstructed by fallen trees and wide ruts. Fire engines had to turn around when Caldor flared up, incurring an expensive two-hour delay.
I can’t believe that was even occurring, Grant Ingram. It like a catastrophe in slow motion.
Grant Ingram was also keeping an eye on his scanner. Ingram, a former fire captain with 35 years of service, battled blazes for both Cal Fire and the U.S. Forest Service.
For the nearby fire district, Ingram looked into the fire’s early spread. He thinks a lot of the fault lies with the administration of the U.S. Forest Service.
Grant Ingram: The leadership didn’t provide the crew on the ground the instructions they needed to quickly put out the fire.
William Whitaker You state unequivocally that poor leadership is to blame.
Grant Ingram: Without a doubt. They were unable to predict where the fire would spread. Then, when it came time to put out that fire, they didn’t bring in enough tools and supplies. And when they saw it was going that way, they did nothing to save the Grizzly Flats neighborhood.
One of the most important choices, according to Ingram, was made early on August 15 when the fire was still minor. Only a few hours into the fire, at 1:43 a.m., the Forest Service ended nighttime activities.
The dispatch log, a minute-by-minute description of the fire that we received under the Freedom of Information Act, states that “Will be removing everyone off the line for accountability.”
We were informed that the situation was hazardous and that a new assessment was needed.
Grant Ingram: We frequently battled fires at night when I worked for other agencies. The ideal moment to accomplish it was then.
William Whitaker However, the incident commander from the Forest Service was directing everyone to halt.
Yes, Grant Ingram
Bill Whitaker said, “Go back home.”
Ingram, Grant Right. At first, I didn’t believe it. Although combating fires is risky, firefighters don’t call 9-1-1 in an emergency. You are the 9-1-1 caller.
State and municipal firemen who had rushed in to assist the Forest Service didn’t like the order to withdraw. Many of them assured us that night was our greatest chance of putting out the fire.
They also informed us that they are trained to combat wildfires around-the-clock till they are put out. We decided to keep this firefighter’s name a secret since none wanted to risk losing their jobs by appearing on video.
William Whitaker What did you think when you heard the incident commander declare that he was leaving and taking additional equipment, fire engines, and bulldozers with him?
Firefighter: What on earth is happening? Seriously, what the hell? There is a fire. The fire must be put out. That’s all there is to it.
William Whitaker Were you aware that something may develop like this?
FIREFIGHTER: Without a doubt. Yes, I believe that everyone gathered on that hill that evening believed that we would be in danger if we didn’t get ahead of this situation that evening.
The Forest Service also recognized it. The region that would almost certainly burn if nothing was done was indicated in red on their own fire model for August 15 that was also received under the Freedom of Information Act.
In Grizzly Flats, there are 600 residences right in the center of the target. However, on the same day, the Forest Service allowed most of the Cal Fire engines and workers depart before their replacements showed there. That is against every firefighting regulation, according to Ingram.
William Whitaker You just didn’t understand why it was decided to release the Cal Fire personnel early, especially given how quickly this fire is spreading.
Grant Ingram: I didn’t get it. And that shouldn’t have occurred at all.
Grant Ingram, a retired fire captain, now runs a company that maps fires. He demonstrated the cause of his worry.
William Whitaker So it began here and traveled all the way up to Grizzly Flat? Yes, Grant Ingram
The fire consumed 200 acres on the second day, August 15. 700 acres on August 16. That evening, the canyon’s winds pushed the flames into a fury that scorched 11,000 acres.
As they gained momentum, the flames soared from treetop to treetop. Because of how many dead trees and dried-out underbrush there were in the Eldorado Forest, it resembled a bonfire that was just waiting for a spark.
Ingram, Grant Everything is now ablaze. Everything is falling on this neighborhood. They are unable to move because they are seated in front of a blow torch.
Lloyd Ogan: We saw the radiance becoming…
Lloyd Ogan, a former deputy fire chief, could see, smell, and feel that blow torch from half a mile away.
We were standing on the deck where you and I are now, Lloyd Ogan. Additionally, you could hear the deck as a whole rumbling.
Bill Whitaker: From an adjacent ridge fire?
Yes, it was simply rumbling, says Lloyd Ogan. And the sound really sounded like a freight train was approaching.
At Leoni Meadows, a campground located south of Grizzly Flats, we first encountered Ogan. He said that night the flames, which were hissing and crackling, were 30 feet over the trees. Ogan said he was aware that the Caldor Fire was out of control at the time.
lvaro Ogan Why would any resources be released on a fire that is in an area with a high danger location is what I find difficult to understand. I haven’t yet come across what I would consider an appropriate response to that query. That query hasn’t received a response as of yet.
According to the Forest Service, its resources were depleted. Nearby, the fiercely raging Dixie Fire, which would grow to be the second-largest fire in California history, was blazing.
Grant Ingram, a former fire captain, however, informed us that local teams were accessible. As the flames tore through Grizzly Flats, he pointed to the dispatch record, which indicated that 12 more fire engines had been sent. It was too late, however.
Ingram, Grant All of a sudden, there are so many fire engines arriving that you wonder where they were two days ago. Why hadn’t they arrived at the Grizzly Flats area before the fire had started?
How come they weren’t, Bill Whitaker?
Ingram, Grant I’m not sure. The Forest Service refuses to respond to our inquiries.
A solitary oasis of green amid a barren wasteland, Leoni Meadows stands out among the debris of Caldor. Due to a sizable fuel break—or buffer zone—that the camp had created, the fire skirted the area around it.
Lloyd Ogan, a retired deputy fire chief, indicated where they had pruned the trees and removed the flammable underbrush. There wasn’t a lot of food left to feed it when Caldor struck.
The fire slowed down and shifted course. Then Ogan showed us the undeveloped US Forest Service area close to the camp. Everything there caught fire.
Lloyd Ogan: The Forest Service side lacked management. That is the outcome.
Bill Whitaker: It’s sort of amazing to see all that destruction there and how it continues to the camp’s property border, where the land was controlled. Everything is green.
Yes, Lloyd Ogan
Bill Whitaker: Might this have happened somewhere around Grizzly Flats?
Yes, Lloyd Ogan Absolutely. The Trestle Project’s main goal was to carry out this precise task. And there’s a good chance Grizzly Flats wouldn’t have burned if it had been done.
Will it not have burned? Bill Whitaker
Yes, Lloyd Ogan
The Forest Service started the Trestle Project nine years ago after discovering through its own studies that Grizzly Flats may burn to the ground if a wildfire broke out in the dense Eldorado Forest. Thousands of acres will be cleaned up, beginning with 970 acres on the town’s southeast side where the fire would probably start first, according to the agency’s pledge.
Only a small portion of the work had been finished over ten years later. And just as the Forest Service had warned, the Caldor Fire completely destroyed Grizzly Flats.
William Whitaker Why did they not take action? They included it in their project.
lvaro Ogan Why wasn’t it done is, in my opinion, the key question.
Not only residents have made an effort to contact the Forest Service for clarification. We continually contacted the taxpayer-funded service to request papers, a statement, and an explanation of what took place.
The Forest Service informed us through email last week that it has begun a 10-year plan, beginning with communities at immediate danger, and wants to significantly expand the scope of forest health operations like the Trestle Project.
The Grizzly Flats people, however, informed us that whatever faith they had in the Forest Service had been destroyed. One of three destructive fires in the area that began on federal property and burnt more than a million acres last year was called Caldor.
Candance Tyler worries that additional settlements like Grizzly Flats may burn to the ground if the Forest Service doesn’t keep its word.
William Whitaker According to the Forest Service, every effort was made. They flung all they had at the flames. You chuckle?
Caitlin Tyler I chuckle Are you serious? Your maps indicate that we will burn. We’re going to burn, your models suggest. But you don’t seem concerned about it? You don’t have the means, I see. That is humorous.
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