This article is the third in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021.
At 6:30 p.m. on August 16th, 2021 incident command released a public notice announcing the expansion of evacuation orders near the Caldor Fire to include the Dogtown Creek area. According to dispatch logs obtained through public records requests, fire had already been burning along the south side of Dogtown Creek since at least 2:45 p.m., nearly four hours prior to the Dogtown Creek evacuation order. Leoni Meadows and Grizzly Flats were not included, nor was there an evacuation warning issued for either area.
As I wrote about in Part 2 of this series, the first indication of fire crossing Dogtown Creek is noted in the logs at 6:48 p.m. on August 16th. Over the next two hours, Pioneer Fire Chief Mark Matthews calls dispatch to warn of the rapidly-growing spot fire. Matthews is repeatedly told he is on the wrong channel and it’s unclear why he is not following protocol and contacting incident command directly. At 8:51 p.m., logs describe the fire on the north side of Dogtown Creek as 5 acres and growing.
At 8:53 p.m., logs note the shifting of resources to Leoni meadows and that it will “take some time to get there.” This is the first mention of sending additional resources to the north side of the creek. Seven minutes later residents on the southeast side of the Grizzly Flats area are placed under an evacuation warning for the first time. The fire was reported 51 hours ago and by this point had been burning in Dogtown Creek for at least two hours.
Over the next hour additional resources reach Leoni Meadows and begin direct structure protection. The first reports of structure loss come in and more resources are moved farther west and north. At 10:11 p.m. a warning comes over the radio: “CALDOR ROAD IS LAST PLACE TO STOP THE FIRE FROM GOING INTO GRIZZLY FLATS.” Still, no evacuation order is issued for residents of Grizzly Flats, and only the eastern portion of the town has been issued a warning.
Fire has now been burning on the north side of Dogtown Creek for three hours and 23 minutes.
What exactly happens next, and when, remains a debate. According personnel within the El Dorado County Sherriff’s Office who spoke with me on the condition of anonymity, law enforcement grew increasingly alarmed when incident command had yet to order the evacuation of Grizzly Flats. These sources claim calls placed to the Eldorado National Forest (ENF) to urge evacuations went unanswered well past 9:30 p.m. The same sources state that between 10:00 and 11:00 p.m., deputies “abandoned protocol and began evacuating residents” of Grizzly Flats on their own. Protocol states that evacuation warnings and orders are placed by incident command and law enforcement are to carry out those orders on the ground. ENF has declined to comment for this article.
According to the dispatch logs, night operations attempt to order the evacuation of Grizzly Flats at 10:54 but are unable to connect with law enforcement. However, 18 minutes later the Sheriff’s Office comes across the radio to state that they had already begun evacuating residents.
What we know for certain is the evacuation order for Grizzly Flats was officially declared sometime between 11:00 and 11:30 p.m. The fire began 52 hours and 48 minutes before, and had been burning north of Dogtown Creek for four hours and 42 minutes.
The logs state that command begins ordering additional resources to Grizzly Flats at 11:22 p.m. At 11:28 p.m. CalFire dispatches six more engines for structure protection and orders them to meet at Grizzly Flats Station. Between 11:37 p.m. and 12:04 a.m. calls go out for the closest engines across the county to report immediately to Grizzly Flats. Law enforcement begin resorting to loud speakers and running door to door to warn residents to get out.
According to the logs, fire enters Grizzly Flats at 2:05 a.m. One minute later a call comes across the radio announcing structure loss. Only four minutes later, at 2:10 a.m., the log states, “LOST SEVERAL HOUSES ON EAST SIDE OF GRIZZLY FLATS. SPOT FIRES ALL OVER. TOO DANGEROUS. PULLING OUT RESOURCES.”
Soon, 911 calls begin coming in from trapped residents who had not yet heard the evacuation order. Blocked by fire, emergency services are unable to respond. Somehow, the residents survive. Two are seriously injured. One remains missing. Over 500 homes are destroyed in minutes. The elementary school and both the 1850’s and modern post offices burn. Nearly the entire town is unrecognizable by dawn.
Following the destruction of Grizzly Flats, CalFire and ENF have stated that a lack of resources was a major hindrance in their fight to save the town. Indeed, the second largest fire in state history was burning to the north at the time. However, the logs indicate at least eight engines were available and in El Dorado County but were not dispatched until at least 11:37 p.m. I am currently investigating whether or not resources being stretched thin due to other wildfires in the state had a direct impact on the initial response to the Calfor Fire.
Both law enforcement and firefighters on the ground saved hundreds of lives the night of August 16. But so did those in and around Grizzly Flats who called friends and neighbors and warned them to get out, hours before any evacuation orders were announced. Still others saved themselves thanks to their own intuition. As one resident said, “I don’t know what it was. I had a bad feeling. We weren’t hearing anything but I just had a bad feeling. So I left. Probably saved my life.”
The series continues:
Part 4: Chaos as Grizzly Flats Burns, Fire Marches On
Header Photo Credit: A chimney is left standing after a property was destroyed by the Caldor Fire in Grizzly Flats, Calif., on Tuesday, Aug. 17, 2021. (AP Photo/Ethan Swope)