Evidence Reveals Potential US Forest Service Mismanagement in California’s Caldor Fire

by Lauren Boisvert
(Wally Skalij/Los Angeles Times via Getty Images)

The Caldor Fire ignited on August 14, 2021, and burned a total of 221,835 acres in the Eldorado National Forest before it was finally contained on October 21, 2021. It destroyed two-thirds of the Grizzly Flats community as well as 1,003 structures and other areas of the Sierra Nevada such as El Dorado, Amador, and Alpine County, California. On August 30, it crossed the Sierra Nevada mountain range, threatening communities on the other side as well. It is the 16th most destructive wildfire in California history.

Recently, CBS News 60 Minutes investigated the Caldor Fire, speaking with residents of Grizzly Flats and looking into claims that the US Forest Service mishandled the fire. Bold accusations, but 60 Minutes found evidence of improper planning and mismanagement on the part of the Forest Service.

Residents Blame US Forest Service for Caldor Fire Destruction, Cite Lack of Resources and Mismanagement

The issues started when the Forest Service sent fire crews to respond to the incident, which was on federal land. Candace Tyler, a resident of Grizzly Flats who spoke with 60 Minutes, said that the Forest Service sent trucks down Caldor Road, which had washed out. Maps were out of date, and the firefighters couldn’t even find the fire in order to contain it. “They’re sending them down Caldor Road, well it’s been washed out for three years,” said Tyler. “How are you going to get a tanker down there? […] It would take a month of Sundays to fill in that hole or cut a new road.”

The US Forest Service is in charge of maintaining roads through the forest, keeping the forest healthy and manageable. A washed-out road left for three years is the complete opposite of keeping the forest healthy. According to the report, downed trees, deep ruts, or wash-outs blocked many of the roads in the Eldorado National Forest. With the outdated maps, fire crews had to backtrack through the forest to get to Caldor Fire. This allegedly took them two hours out of the way.

Retired Fire Captain Calls Caldor ‘A Failure of Leadership’

60 Minutes also spoke with Grant Ingram, a retired fire captain of 35 years who worked with the US Forest Service and Cal Fire. Ingram investigated the spread of the Caldor Fire for the fire district and believes that the Forest Service should shoulder much of the blame for the fire’s massive spread.

“The leadership failed to give the team on the ground what they needed to do to put that fire out in a timely manner,” said Ingram. “[Leadership] failed to understand where the fire was going to go. Then they failed to bring in enough equipment and resources to mitigate that fire. And then they failed to protect the community of Grizzly Flats when they knew it was headed that way.”

According to Ingram, at around 1:43 am on August 15, the US Forest Service shut down firefighting operations. “Will be pulling everyone off the line for accountability,” the dispatch log reads. According to the Forest Service, they wanted to reassess dangerous conditions. State and local firefighters didn’t agree with the order. Part of their training involves fighting wildfires 24/7. That night was a crucial time for putting out the Caldor Fire, and leadership ordered them to stop.

One firefighter agreed to speak with 60 Minutes if they concealed his identity for fear of losing his job. When asked if the crews knew that the Caldor Fire had the potential to turn so deadly, he replied, “Absolutely. I think everybody on that hill that night figured that if we didn’t get ahead of this thing that night we were going to be in trouble.”

US Forest Service Predicted Widespread Damage From Caldor Fire, But Dropped the Ball When It Came to Containment

The US Forest Service made a fire model for August 15 showing the area damaged and burned if they did nothing to suppress the blaze. There was a target-like area created on the model with a red circle in the middle which contained 600 homes in the Grizzly Flats community. The Forest Service knew Grizzly Flats was in danger, yet they dismissed an estimated half dozen Cal Fire crews. According to the report, the Forest Service dismissed many of the crews before replacements arrived.

On the night of August 17, canyon winds spread the Caldor Fire to 11,000 more acres, nearly consuming Grizzly Flats. The Forest Service had not taken care of the Eldorado National Forest. It was dense with downed trees and underbrush so that the fire leaped from tree to tree, igniting more and more acreage.

Overall, the US Forest Service dropped the ball that first night of the Caldor Fire, and there’s evidence to prove it. Outdated maps and equipment, not clearing brush and downed trees from Eldorado Forest, dismissing crews, and allowing the fire to spread right to Grizzly Flats’ doorstep all culminated in the over 200,000 acres destroyed over two months. Residents are still angry and devastated a year later, and someone has to answer for the destruction.