This article is the second in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021.
In the first installment of this series we left off with crews being sent home on orders from the Eldorado National Forest (ENF) chiefs, according to firefighters at the scene and confirmed by dispatch and call logs. It was 1:43 a.m. on August 15th, 2021. Crews were furious to leave a fire that, in their opinion, was entirely uncontained.
Over the next several hours with crews pulled from the line, few entries are noted in the call logs. Evacuation orders are confirmed for just a 1.5 mile radius around the fire, and there appears to be some confusion on exactly how large the fire is at this point. At 7:24 a.m. logs suggest air attack planning has begun with discussion on which aircraft have been ordered and what dip sites aircraft may be able to use. Dip sites are bodies of water that helicopters can use to fills tanks or buckets to then drop on the nearby fire.
Even at this early time of the morning, call logs already suggest confusion and miscommunication. Just before 9:00 a.m., recon flight requests are going unanswered by incident command (ENF). At 8:58 a.m. the log notes, “Unable to get IC or OPS for Recon.” Later, incident command responds to the calls and denies the request for recon due to poor air. There is no explanation in the logs for the delay in response.
The logs for the rest of the morning indicate repeated attempts to bring in a variety of aircraft to drop water, with each thwarted by poor visibility. As the fire continues to grow on the south side of Dogtown Creek along the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River, there is nothing in the logs to suggest moving strike teams or other resources to the north of the creek. By the middle of the day there are no calls for structure protection at Leoni Meadows or staging in Grizzly Flat.
Finally, between 2-3:00 p.m., there is enough visibility for helicopters to make their way closer to the fire. Unfortunately, the ENF Chief comes on the radio to announce that applications and land use agreements would need to be filled out if air attack wishes to use dip sites on public land. This interruption is noted in the log at 3:27 p.m.: “Dip Site? Per C1F [ENF Fire Chief] if we need to use a public dipsite we need to fill out a 213 and a land use agreement, see if they can use one on forest first. Advised AA [Air Attack].”
It should be noted that C1F, the ENF Fire Chief, was not the incident commander at this time. Any information he wished to share about land use agreements should have gone directly to incident command and not through the dispatch channel. Firefighters, speaking with me on condition of anonymity, have previously shared with me the confusion that often results within direct personnel when chain of command is not adhered to. Personnel also expressed frustration that pilots were interrupted in the middle of a flight plan due to what was described as “meaningless paperwork.”
It is unclear if any helicopters were unable to complete drops due to the ENF Fire Chief’s sudden warning. The ENF have refused to share the tactical logs and recordings which would have been likely to shed light on this specific moment. In their explanation the ENF cites various ongoing investigations impeding their ability to share what would normally be information available to the public.
What we do know is within 30 minutes most aircraft were ordered to depart the area due to visibility. Helicopters were able to occasionally drop a bucket to support ground crews for the rest of the afternoon. By 7:00 p.m., air attack announces all aircraft are being pulled from the fire due to visibility. Ground crews continue working the fire south of Dogtown Creek. The logs are quiet for the rest of the night of the 15th. Again, there is no discussion of moving additional resources to the north despite only intermittent success utilizing air resources due to visibility.
The morning of August 16th, 2021 begins with uncertainty. Call logs note that night operations had difficulty obtaining a full picture of what was happening on the ground due to visibility. At 6:16 a.m. the log reads, “Per Caldor Night Ops, update-new acreage unknown. QUITE A BIT OF GROWTH. FIRE ACT W/IN DRAINAGE AND UPSLOPE HAS PICKED UP SINCE 0500.” This would mark the first indication of active, growing fire in the Dogtown Creek and Middle Fork Cosumnes River drainage in several hours. It would not be the last.
The rest of the morning is again marked by several attempts of air attack to get water on the fire, many of which remain unsuccessful due to visibility. At 2:45 p.m. the first warning of fire “picking up significantly…working way down Dogtown Creek” comes across the radio. It is also noted, “WILL GET MSG INTO PLANNING RE NEEDS.” The logs suggest incident command begins to plan for the possibility of fire crossing Dogtown Creek while firefighters on the ground continue to attack the fire directly wherever possible.
A firefighter at the scene that afternoon tells me, “It was already too late. By then it was inevitable fire was going to cross the creek, but it shouldn’t have been. I don’t know what they were waiting for. Anyone could have predicted what happened next.”
It was 6:47 p.m. when it happened: “SPOTTED ACROSS DOGTOWN CREEK. 2 ROTORS ON IT NOW. ABOUT 1/4 ACRE.” One minute later a forest chief comes across the radio to give directions to crews to try access the spot fire off of Leoni Meadows property. It is unclear how far away these crews were from the spot fire and there is still no mention of sending additional resources to the north of Dogtown creek.
Then, 8:49 p.m. a panicked voice comes across the radio announcing the spot fire “is growing in size. Well over 5 acres…it’s running uphill. We are making access to get out. It may be cutting us off.” It was Mark Matthews, the same Pioneer Fire Chief who declared “forward progress stopped” two days earlier. Now, Chief Matthews is surrounded by fire to the north of Dogtown Creek, desperately trying to escape the drainage while calling the radio for more resources.
Unfortunately, Chief Matthews was calling the wrong channel. The call logs document dispatch operators repeatedly instructing the chief to call operations directly. Since the start of the fire two days prior, personnel informs Chief Mathews at least six separate times to use the operations channel to notify those in command of his movements and needs. It is unclear why he chooses not to.
It also remains unclear if operations or incident command were aware of Chief Matthews’ location prior to his desperate calls for help. One firefighter who went through the call logs with me said, “It looks like he went over there [north side of Dogtown creek] on his own. He’s not listening to dispatch. He keeps calling the wrong channel. The guy has gone rogue. It wouldn’t surprise me if no one knew he was over there until it was too late.”
Thankfully, both day and night operations finally come on the radio and confirm they are in contact with Chief Matthews, on the appropriate channel, and that he is out, safe. They also announced, for the first time, that they are shifting resources to the north of Dogtown Creek to Leoni Meadows.
It was 8:53 p.m. In six hours Grizzly Flat would burn.