This article is the fourth and final installment in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021. In-depth reporting on these and the following days will continue in future posts and series.
At 11:12 p.m. on August 16, 2021 the Caldor Fire Incident Command (IC) officially orders the evacuation of Grizzly Flats. Fire has been burning on the north side of Dogtown Creek, moving through Leoni Meadows, for nearly four hours and 30 minutes. It is not yet clear why so many hours passed before the evacuation call was made. One firefighter, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, had just arrived in Grizzly Flats as part of a last-minute effort to save the town. “We had our job to do. That’s our focus. But I couldn’t believe there were still residents there. I really thought someone was going to lose their life that night,” they said.
In the following moments, official dispatch call logs suggest a frantic effort to protect the homes and businesses in the Grizzly Flats area. At 11:28 p.m. CalFire dispatches six additional engines to report to Grizzly Flats’ station. Nine minutes later a request goes out for three more engines to Leoni Meadows. At 11:53 p.m. IC orders four engines to Grizzly Flats followed by two more at 12:04 a.m. It was too late.
Accounts differ on when exactly the first structures in Grizzly Flats began to burn. At 2:02 a.m. on August 17, 2021 the dispatch call log reads, “PER OPS FIRE HAS REACHED GRIZZLY.” However, in an interview last month one firefighter recalls fighting structure fires in Grizzly Flats closer to 12:30 a.m. Another firefighter is even more adamant saying, “There’s no way fire reached Grizzly at 2:00 a.m. We already were pulled out of one area that was a total loss and moved to another by then.” There is often a slight lag between an incident occurring on the ground at any given moment and IC being made aware of that incident. However, a discrepancy longer than a few moments could be cause for concern. As one firefighter bluntly put it, “If I’m out here fighting this fire and command doesn’t even know where the hell my guys are for over an hour I’d be pissed.”
At 2:10 a.m. the call log shows CalFire ordering ground personnel to retreat from Grizzly Flats: “SPOT FIRES ALL OVER. TOO DANGEROUS. PULLING RESOURCES OUT.” Again, however, on-the-ground accounts contradict this record. Several firefighters claim they were still actively fighting fire and protecting structures in Grizzly Flats well past 3:00 a.m. According to one, “It was just chaos. No one knew what the hell was going on. It wouldn’t surprise me if someone ordered everyone out and we didn’t even know about it. No one was really in charge.”
Then, at 2:26 a.m. radios crackle to life with an alarming report: At least two residents are trapped. They had just called 911 to say their home is surrounded by flames and they can’t access transportation to get out. El Dorado County Sheriff’s deputies try to make their way towards the home but are blocked by fire. Firefighters are also unable to access the area due to heat. Dispatch attempts to call the residents back go unanswered. For 30 minutes, no one knows what happened to the trapped residents.
Then, relief spreads as it’s announced the residents made it out alive. One firefighter tells me their escape is a miracle. “There’s no other way to put it. There’s no other explanation.” Three and a half hours into the evacuation of Grizzly Flats these two residents are the last to leave. It’s 3:00 a.m., and much of the town has already been destroyed.
By 3:30 a.m., if not sooner, firefighters have all been pulled out of Grizzly Flats due to safety concerns. The situation is out of control. IC scrambles teams to the west of town in the hopes of stopping further destruction towards Happy Valley and Sweeney’s Crossing. Now that the fire has far escaped the confines of the Eldorado National Forest (ENF), and with chaos on the ground, CalFire establishes a joint command. For the next eight weeks, CalFire would be the lead agency in this new partnership and the ENF would be asked to focus on their territory.
At 9:02 a.m. on August 17, 2021 air attack arrives on scene. The fire has exploded in size, nearly all of Grizzly Flats has been destroyed, and flames are charging north. By the end of the day the Caldor Fire approaches 40,000 acres, up from 6,000 just 24 hours prior. According to a firefighter from CalFire it is at this point that everyone understands the fire will no longer be stopped. Their only hope is to “guide” the fire around populated areas to the west and north and push the flames back towards the east. With CalFire now in command much of the strategy is successful. The vast majority of Sly Park and other communities around Jenkinson Lake are saved. Pleasant Valley, Somerset, and Fair Play are all untouched. And while the fight had just begun, a sense of control, however tenuous, begins to fall across the west and north fronts of the Caldor Fire. Here, at least, thousands of homes will remain safe as the fire sweeps across El Dorado County.
Grant Ingram is a retired firefighter with over 30 years experience. He worked as a Fire Safety Officer for CalFire and was assigned to the Serious Accident Review Team, in addition to working for a number of local fire districts. With Chief Mark Matthews being one of the first on scene to the Caldor Fire, and with the fire devastating parts of its community, the Pioneer Fire District Board of Directors asked Mr. Ingram to investigate the initial response to the fire. His goal is to understand what went wrong, what went right, and what could be done better in the event of another area wildfire. While Mr. Ingram is still conducting his investigation I had to the opportunity to discuss his opinion on his findings thus far.
In Mr. Ingram’s view, there are two primary factors leading to explosive nature of the Caldor Fire and the subsequent destruction of Grizzly Flats: Poor forest management in the years leading up to the fire, and poor command and control in the early response to the fire. Mr. Grant has briefly shared with me plans by the Eldorado National Forest to conduct fuel reduction on over 7,000 acres of forest on the east and south sides of Grizzly Flats. The plans were approved in 2017. However, by 2021 only several hundred acres of fuel reduction had been complete. According to Mr. Ingram, funding and resources were available and did not play a factor in the plan’s failure. Rather, he tells me, “It was a lack of will.” The Jericho Report is gathering further details on the fuel reduction plans and stories on this aspect of the investigations will be published here.
In terms of command and control, Mr. Ingram has much to say. One issue that sticks out to him is the lack of understanding on who exactly is in charge on August 14th and 15th. According to him, with no clear chain of command it would have been exceedingly difficult to get the right orders out to the right firefighters, in the right location, at the right time. Additionally, the issue of “too many cooks in the kitchen” can get in the way of efficient decision making. Mr. Ingram suggests this could be why Chief Mathews inserted himself into areas of command where he was not in charge, including Matthews’ declaration that the fire’s forward progress has been stopped.
Mr. Ingram tells me this lack of command and control led to a series of costly mistakes and delays that “came down like dominoes.” In his view, the ENF simply did not order enough resources early on to combat what was already a potentially dangerous wildfire. Mr. Ingraham objects to the view that resources were stretched too thin due to the Dixie Fire raging to the north: “All those engines and teams they called in as they were evacuating Grizzly (on the evening of August 16th) should have been ordered hours, if not days, before. They were available. They just weren’t used.”
Mr. Ingram believes August 15th into the early hours of August 16th presented the final opportunity for ENF to prevent the fire running at Grizzly Flats. However, a lack of understanding the inversion layer, approaching weather, and terrain, in addition to miscommunication, led to a multitude of poor decisions. As he says, “There just was no command and control for days. So of course this fire grew and got out of control because there was no real plan to fight it.” When I asked what prevented more urgent action as fire grew towards Dogtown Creek he pauses and then tell me, “I think there was just this assumption that they had everything under control. That they didn’t need help. They just kind of had this attitude of, ‘We got this.'” It’s the lack of command and control, he says, that allowed the fire to move into heavy timber and from there, “There was really no stopping it.”
However, Mr. Ingram is also quick to add that even with poor decisions early on and even with the fire moving through heavy timber, the opportunity to save Grizzly Flats remained: “If they had at least moved resources around Grizzly before, even hours before, they could redirected much of that fire around those homes. If they had done that, even some of that, much of the loss would have been drastically reduced.”
Mr. Ingram plans to present his findings to the Pioneer Fire District Board of Directors at their February meeting. Meanwhile, the board continues to seek a replacement of Chief Matthews as his March retirement draws closer.