Reporting a course of events isn’t intrinsically difficult. I do the research. I read the documents. I interview the witnesses. I construct a timeline. I lay out the facts. I then paint the picture of the events as accurately as possible in a format that is relatively easy for my readers to digest. I don’t always enjoy the material, but I do enjoy the construction. I take comfort in the order and simplicity that reporting can offer. It’s no more complicated than putting a puzzle together.
At some point, though, I’m always reminded we don’t live in a world of simplicity and order. A reader will ask, “So what do you think about all this? What’s your opinion?” As you know by now I do what I can to avoid these questions as long as possible. Eventually, of course, it can’t be ignored. You, my readers, are lovely people and if you want to know what I think, I’m going to tell you. So let’s dig in.
The initial response to the fire was inadequate. This has nothing to with the firefighters on the ground (who are heroes). And it isn’t due to malice. There isn’t an evil cabal inside the forest service taking delight in the destruction of El Dorado County (despite what a few prolific Facebook users may tell you). It’s much simpler than that: Inexperienced leadership, untested emergency response plans, and decades of forest mismanagement all prevented an effective response to the unfolding disaster.
There are leaders here who, hopefully, are examining and learning from the decisions they made in the early hours of the fire. Chief Matthews should be among them. By all accounts, Matthews is a good firefighter with a lifetime of service under his belt. He’s a family man and a valued member of this community. And none of this should prevent this community from questioning his decisions and whether there are lessons here to be learned from them.
Chief Matthews declared the fire over on August 14. We still don’t know why he did this. It’s never been spoken of publicly and the chief has not responded to my requests for comments. What we do know for sure is several firefighters have spoken of the confusion that followed Chief Matthews’ announcement, and confusion is never a good thing when it comes to responding to an unfolding disaster.
Later, we know Chief Matthews repeatedly called in his position and reports to the wrong channel. In fact, he continued to do so even after being repeatedly told to contact incident command directly. This led to more communication challenges and clogged up the airwaves dispatch was trying to keep open. We also know Chief Matthews then found himself in a remarkably dangerous situation, surrounded by fire and calling for help. But because of the communication mistakes it’s unclear if incident command was even aware of his location.
Of course the mistakes weren’t restricted to Chief Matthews. We now know resources were sent home in the first hours of the Caldor Fire despite a lack of containment. In at least one incident, someone who wasn’t even in charge came across the radio in an attempt to direct pilots on which dip sites were available for use. In another, confusion ensues when someone else finds a resource order placed earlier was never filled. All of these issues call into question where there was a clearly defined chain-of-command in place. If not, why not? If so, what were the primary roadblocks preventing its implementation?
There is also what I consider to be a lack of preparation on the north side of Dogtown Creek. Why did incident command wait so long to move additional resources to Leoni Meadows and Grizzly Flats? Chief Matthews repeatedly warned dispatch that the fire was moving towards the creek, then near the creek, then in the creek. He was still yelling into the radio when the fire grew to five acres on the north side of the creek. Was it his use of the wrong channel that delayed resources from moving north? Or, does incident command have additional information we have not yet seen that caused the leaders to believe the fire would never push that far north?
Then there is the evacuation of Grizzly Flats. Multiple law enforcement sources have told me repeated calls were made to the forest service to request the town’s evacuation, all which went unanswered. We also have logs that indicate the forest service was having difficulty contacting the Sheriff’s Office after the evacuation had already begun. Again, we don’t know what exactly led to the delay of Grizzly, but there was a delay nonetheless. Was this an unimaginable fire moving through unprecedented conditions? Yes. Could evacuations across Grizzly Flats have come much earlier, much safer, and much more orderly than what the majority of residents experienced? I believe so, yes.
And while we are on the topic of Grizzly Flats, let’s remember the scores of firefighters that were also on the ground that night. These men and women were risking their lives to protect residents as they ran for their lives. And they did so without hesitation. These heroes didn’t waste time questioning their leaders or asking what took so long to get the evacuations started. They didn’t have that kind of time. They put their heads down and did their jobs. All of them were far removed from the decisions I am questioning today. Let’s not forget that.
There is a lot floating around on social media claiming the various firefighting agencies did “nothing” to respond to the Caldor Fire. I don’t share this sentiment. I really believe everyone gave their very best to fight this fire, save lives, and protect homes.
On the other hand, I also see plenty of blanket statements that the forest service and CalFire essentially performed perfectly and this fire was simply out of control from the begining. As you should suspect by now I don’t share this sentiment, either. Despite best efforts, leadership made mistakes and early planning was inadequate.
There will never be a “perfect” response to a natural disaster. But we should expect our leaders, those who job it is to respond to these disasters, to always strive to do better and minimize mistakes wherever possible. In order to do that, of course, those mistakes need acknowledged and solutions need offered. I’m hopeful we will see both in the near future.
As always, you are welcome to join the discussion and share your own opinion over at our Facebook discussion group. I’ll see you there.
In the coming days, I will continue my series on the early response to the Caldor Fire. My research here is far from over and I still have interviews with firefighters to complete. I’m also working on stories from survivors as well as an update on the case against David and Travis Shane Smith as we wait for trial. Thanks for sticking with me.