It’s August 14, 2021. At Leoni Meadows Camp and Retreat Center visitors are well into their evening activities. Eric Henton, an employee of the camp, is supervising the children when his radio crackles to life. “We have E-Alert but we are out of service out there so we keep the radios on. When it came across it sounded like a little fire.” Unconcerned, Henton continues his camp duties while monitoring the radio.
Hours later after wrapping up the children’s activities, Henton and a coworker jump in an ATV. They head towards the Dogtown Creek drainage. Along the way they find a single Pioneer district firefighter and lead him down the steep, winding forest road. Crossing Dogtown Creek they find themselves above the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes. It’s 10:58 p.m.
It’s here that Henton first sets eyes on the fire. “We could see flames through the trees on the far side (of the river).” They see a flashlight and hear a voice call out. It’s Pioneer Fire Protection District Chief Mark Matthews, first to arrive on scene. After a brief exchange between the four men, Henton heads back up out of the canyon to flag the roads as a means to assist first responders in locating the fire.
Returning to the river Henton finds his friend, a trained volunteer firefighter, speaking with Matthews about wanting to cut fire lines to the north. Citing district policy Matthews forbids him from doing so. At the same time Henton is monitoring the radio and notes the struggle crews are facing on the south side of the river. “From a layman’s perspective it just sounded like they were playing hopscotch with it. It’s like the fire kept jumping them because they weren’t coming at it from the right side,” he tells me.
Still, given size of the fire, Henton and is not terribly alarmed. The fire is small and moving slowly, and crews are working direct on the south side of the river. Sometime after midnight he leaves the canyon to turn in for the night, confident in the likelihood that the fire will be contained by morning.
As Henton sleeps the fire is grows. As I previously reported, a California Highway Patrol Helicopter pilot estimates the fire to be 40 acres by 1:00 a.m. Then, at 1:43 a.m., an El Dorado National Forest Division Chief pulls crews off the front lines “for accountability.” For the rest of the night there is no indication in the dispatch logs that any personnel actively fight the fire.
Early on the morning of August 15, Henton returns down to the river drainage. He finds the same Pioneer District firefighter he saw the previous night, who tells Henton he “cut line all night alone” before sleeping in his truck. According to Henton, he again sees no personnel from the forest service, nor any other firefighters, along or to the north of Dogtown Creek. By now the fire has moved several hundred yards up the drainage.
Increasingly alarmed, Henton returns to Leoni Meadows Camp and requests that all camp visitors be sent home for their safety. With the possibility growing of fire reaching camp and no emergency personnel in sight, Henton and other staff realize they could be on their own in any fight to come. “There was a lot of air activity that Sunday, but there were still no firefighters here on the north side. I had no interactions with the forest service all day. I might have seen maybe one forest service pickup truck drive by, but that was it.”
By the morning of August 16 Leoni Meadows Camp Staff are preparing for the inevitable. “We knew if it came across the (Dogtown) creek it was going to run up to us,” Henton says. While they have reduced fuel loads and expanded their defensive barrier for years, fire is now on their doorstep and much work remains to be done. They begin clearing brush, laying hose around key buildings, and running their dozer to expand their protection. Monitoring their radios, staff hear that fire has indeed reached Dogtown Creek.
At midday while camp staff are breaking for lunch, Chief Matthews stops by to ask what their evacuation plans are. They share their plans to continue building defensive space throughout the afternoon as well as who plans on leaving the camp first. The Chief also asks for a camp radio so he can communicate directly with staff there. At this point the fire has been burning for nearly 48 hours and Henton has yet to see another firefighter or forest service personnel anywhere near their property or north of Dogtown Creek.
CalFire dispatch logs appear to confirm Henton’s recounting of his experience these first few days. There are no indications of resources being ordered to the north of the drainage, nor does the forest service request crews to Leoni Meadows or Grizzly Flats until late on Monday, August 16.
As I previously reported, fire first crosses Dogtown Creek at 6:47 p.m. According to Henton, Chief Matthews then radios Leoni Meadows Camp staff and asks them to head down the canyon to try to get a location of the spot fire on the north side of the creek. “I thought it was weird. There were helicopters on it. Why couldn’t he ask them for the lat long?” Still, Henton agrees and hikes down the canyon to answer Matthews’ call for help.
It’s not until Henton is climbing back up that he realizes the dangerous situation he may have been in. “It’s really steep down there. Coming back up I could barely breathe.” Forrest Hasso, brother-in-law of Henton and employee of the camp, meets Henton as he returns. “I told him he shouldn’t be doing that. Hiking down to the head of a fire, no protective gear, it’s really steep. He just shouldn’t be doing that,” Hasso tells me as he joins my interview with Henton.
Henton was right, Hasso says. “There’s something wrong with him (Matthews). Why would he do that? Why would he send me down there? I don’t have that kind of training. I have no PPE. Why didn’t he just ask the pilots? It’s all just so weird.”
At 7:00 p.m., with fire now on the north side of Dogtown and growing, an El Dorado National Forest chief finally calls out for resources to shift north and gives directions to access the fire off road 9N60, the same road Henton flagged two days ago. For staff at the Leoni Meadows camp, it was too late.
“We knew it was coming. All we could do was head back to camp and harden up whatever was left before it got here,” Henton says. It’s at this point, according to the two men, that Matthews begins to panic. Hasso tells me he could hear Matthews “on the verge of screaming in a panic, really. Just out of control. Just crazy. Unhinged. I don’t know how else to describe it.” Henton agrees. “You know, there is radio etiquette that all firefighters are taught. It’s a way to stay calm. All that was out the window. From that point forward he was totally screaming. For hours. Those were some of the most unprofessional calls I have ever heard in my life,” he says.
Two firefighters and another area resident, all of whom spoke with me on condition of anonymity, corroborate Henton and Hasso’s account. According to these sources, they had to ask Matthews to “calm down” several times over the radio so they could focus on their work. At the same time, call logs indicate at least two dispatchers repeatedly asking Matthews to switch to the proper radio channel. One firefighter tells me, “He really just lost it. He’s yelling and screaming. And the few times he is giving useful information he’s not even on the right channel.”
It’s 10:15 Monday night when, Henton says, “Finally, everyone shows up. CalFire. The forest service. The dozers. They were all just suddenly there.” The fire has been burning for 52 hours. This is the first time Henton sees firefighting personnel or equipment from the forest service. Henton shows the crews the hoses, wells, and hydrants. A firefighter compliments the men on the work they completed over the past two days and jokes that not much more is needing done.
Indeed, by 11:00 p.m. the crews are already leaving Leoni Meadows Camp. Henton and Hesso admit their memory is strained at this point and they speculate as to why crews pulled out so soon. They wonder aloud whether crews leave because the work is already completed, or if it is more of a safety issue and the firefighters are being ordered to evacuate. Either way, they both clearly remember what happens next.
Just after 11:00 p.m., the remaining staff at Leoni Meadows Camp is meeting with their boss. They are reviewing the final steps of their evacuation plan and discussing whether any more preparation can safely be done. Suddenly, the door is thrown open. “Matthews just came in screaming that we’re all going to die. He was ordering all of us to leave immediately. Our boss just kind of told him to calm down, that we had our plan in place and this is private property, anyway. At that point he (Matthews) just slammed the radio down, the one he borrowed, and yelled something like, ‘You’re gonna have blood on your hands.’ Then he just stormed out,” Henton says. Hasso and another individual present at the meeting confirmed the exchange with me.
Henton and the rest of the remaining camp staff leave the property soon after, with each going to their respective homes across the Grizzly Flats area to pack up belongings and evacuate. Remarkably, the most important buildings across the Leoni Meadows Camp were all saved as the Caldor Fire raged through the area. Henton is grateful for the heroic work firefighters did for the camp. “If it wasn’t for them every building here would have burned,” he says. He is also thankful for the defensive space constructed by camp staff over the years as well as their own final efforts as the fire approached.
Towards the end of our interview, Henton and Hasso wonder aloud how a fire chief with such experience as Matthews could behave in such a strange and, at times, dangerous manner while working a fire. “Everyone knows SOP (standard operating procedure) but, clearly this guy doesn’t,” Henton says. They also wonder why it took so long for the forest service to move any resources to the north of Dogtown Creek, and why it took even longer to begin protecting Grizzly Flat.
According to Henton, the Leoni Meadows Camp hopes to welcome visitors back this summer. You can learn more about the camp here.