This article is the first in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021.
At 6:50 p.m. on August 14, 2021, Travis Shane Smith called 911 from an ATV trail on the north side of Dogtown Creek to report seeing fire to the south. Four minutes later the information Shane provided was routed to the CalFire Emergency Command Center in Camino. Because the fire was located on United States Forest land, the Eldorado National Forest fire chief officers were immediately dispatched. It was now 6:56 p.m. From this moment forward, call and radio logs suggest a disturbing pattern of confusion, missteps, and miscommunication. This article, the first in a series, examines the initial response to the Caldor Fire, a response one firefighter at the scene described as, “Nothing but chaos.”
The initial calls between 6:50 and 6:56 p.m. dispatched fire chiefs from the Eldorado National Forest (ENF), the nearby Pioneer Fire District, and CalFire. Importantly, ENF would be the lead agency due to the location of the fire. A chief from the Pioneer Fire District was the first to arrive in the general vicinity. Unfortunately, he was unable to locate the fire due to incorrect directions. It was 7:22 p.m.
Based on Travis Shane Smith’s 911 call and the CalFire call logs, it appears the initial location of the fire was given as the location of where Smith was when he called, instead of the location of the fire itself which was farther south on the other side of the drainage. Several witnesses I spoke with describe fire engines travelling along Grizzly Flat and Caldor roads. From here, the north side of the Dogtown Creek and Middle Fork Cosumnes River drainage, it would have been impossible to access the fire.
At 7:49 p.m., 49 minutes after Travis Shane Smith called 911, the first useable directions are noted in the log: BEST ACCESS – OMO RANCH TO LITTLE MT RD. The directions appear to have come from pilots of bucket helicopters who understood ground crews had yet to locate the fire. Over the next ten minutes, air attack successfully completes three drops on the fire while ground crews head south to again try to access the area.
And then, something curious happens. At 8:03 p.m. Pioneer Fire District Mark Matthews chief comes across the radio and declares, “Forward progress stopped.” Air attack had just completed its third drop and ground crews were still arriving on scene. It is unclear why the declaration was made and there is nothing in the logs indicating a clarification, even when further growth of the fire was described moments later. One firefighter, who spoke on the condition of anonymity, described the ensuing confusion. “We are there thinking oh, forward progress stopped, okay, and then someone else starts ordering more resources and then air attack says it doubled? It just didn’t make sense,” he said.
Over the next several hours with ENF in command, confusion and conflicting reports fill the logs. At 9:21 p.m., air attack is released for the night with plans to return the following morning. Additional hand crews are ordered and then cancelled when someone states the order had already been placed. Ground crews were still having trouble accessing the fire due to “locked fences and tough mining roads,” according to the logs. There is talk of evacuating Pipi Valley campground “tomorrow, or sooner if we can’t get boots on the ground tonight.” During this time, the size of the fire is repeatedly described as being between three and five acres.
Suddenly, at 12:13 a.m., a stark update comes across the radio: “30 to 40 acres. Heavy fuel crowning. Torching. Nearest structure is one mile away.” A California Highway Patrol helicopter had been asked to fly over the fire to help clear up the confusion on the fire’s size and location. CHP began immediate aerial evacuations of the surrounding area. It is unclear who requested the CHP flyover, and it’s not mentioned in the logs.
According to a CalFire firefighter at the scene, the ENF chiefs were portraying a “sense of control, it was like they kept trying to say ‘we got this’ when everyone knew they didn’t.” Still, no one, including this firefighter, was expecting what came next.
Several CalFire firefighters, along with Pioneer firefighters, were released from the incident at the direction of ENF despite there being no containment of the fire, according to personnel at the scene. Indeed, at 1:43 a.m. on August 15, a line appears in the log that all personnel were to be pulled for “accountability.” ENF has previously stated this decision was made in the name of safety. Personnel on the ground disagree. One firefighter, again speaking on the condition of anonymity, told me, “There wasn’t one good reason for us to leave. Not one. To pull us off a fire like that, bullshit. They (the ENF) think they own that land and they wanted us gone.” The ENF have not responded to repeated requests for comment for this article.
All of the firefighters I spoke with agree that early confusion of who was leading the response led to miscommunication across the incident. But according to them, the most serious mistake was an assumption on behalf of the ENF that the fire was small and not moving well into the night, despite very little evidence to suggest this was in fact true. Worse still was the ENF’s decision to send them home when, in their point of view, much work was still to be done and could have been done safely. One firefighter told me, “This could have been done in one operational period.” When I asked him to clarify he said, “That fire should have been contained that night. But they screwed it all up.”