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'Why did they let us burn?' | An investigation into unkept promises and mismanagement by the US Forest Service

Grizzly Flats was the Caldor Fire's first victim but decades-old studies showed Grizzly could one day burn. Promises were made to protect it, but were not kept.

GRIZZLY FLATS, Calif. — “Well, this was inherited from my mother who inherited from her parents who they inherited from my great-grandparents,” said Lou Lucas. “So, this was my life.”

Roots in Grizzly Flats run deep.

“My great-grandparents bought the homestead in 1910,” said Lucas.

Lucas’ cousin, Candance Tyler, lives a stone’s throw away – raising the sixth generation of their Grizzly Flats family.

“Our hearts are here,” said Tyler. “All we’ve ever known is Grizzly.”

With just over 1,400 residents, the mountain town is surrounded by thousands of acres of Eldorado National Forest.

“Grizzly is a place of serenity,” said Tobe Magidson.

But mountain living is not easy.

“It’s not for the faint of heart,” said Magidson. “So, we depend on each other.”

Locals have a bond that’s grown strong between harsh winters and summers continuing to grow drier and hotter, which is why they've always regarded the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council as the pillar of their community.

“We wanted to be a part of the community,” said Rick Lower. He moved with his wife to the area for their “forever home” they planned to retire in. “And when you are part of the community, you go to the fire meeting.”

“We have one of the best fire safe councils in the nation,” said Tyler.

Mark Almer has served as the fire council’s chairperson for the majority of time since its formation in 2004.

“Basically, it’s a group of community volunteers that work together and help make the community as fire safe as possible,” said Almer.

“We go to sleep worried about fire,” explained Magidson. “Wake up worried about fire.”

In fact, a warning from the United States Forest Service is why the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council was formed in the first place.

“They had a computerized fire model that showed if a fire ever started in the middle fork of the Consumnes River drainage, it would pretty much wipe out our community within 24 hours,” said Almer.

WATCH MORE from the ABC10 Originals team

To protect the community, the fire council formed in April 2004 and seven years later, the U.S. Forest Service made a promise to help protect Grizzly by way of a project.

“We have been executing and implementing a few projects in the area, including the Trestle Project,” said Eldorado National Forest District Ranger Scot Rogers.

The Trestle Project aimed to reduce fire fuel and fire threat to over 16,000 acres around Grizzly Flats. But on Aug. 14, 2021 – a fire started exactly where the Forest Service predicted.

“It was just a little plume of smoke on Saturday night,” said Tyler.

“I figured by the time we woke up Sunday morning, it would be under control,” said MaryAnn Lower. “It would be fine.”

The fire ignited in what the Trestle Project defined as a “hard to reach” canyon in the Eldorado National Forest, garnering responsibility to the U.S. Forest Service in managing how to fight it.

It was something that caught the eye of retired firefighter Grant Ingram, who now runs a fire-mapping business.

“I ran a quick model – a fire fuels model – and I thought, ‘Oh, this is not a good spot for a fire,’” said Ingram.

His maps showed the fire was only 3.5 miles from Grizzly Flats. Alarmed, he went to the U.S. Forest Service’s website to look at their briefing map, their plan of how to fight the fire.

“The Forest Service had posted the wrong map on there,” said Ingram.

From Ingram’s own maps, he knew the fire had the potential to become quickly dangerous.

“That made the hair go up on the back of my head,” said Ingram. “I’m thinking, ‘Okay, if they can’t even get the map right on this thing… what’s the rest of this fire going to do?’”

The fire started Aug. 14. Two days later, it was still burning.

“That’s when we started getting pretty scared,” said Magidson.

As time passed and the fire grew, so did the fear.

“When it grows to 40 acres overnight, that means something was wrong,” said Lower. “Something wasn’t being done.”

On the night of Aug. 16, 2021 – 48 hours after it first ignited – the fire exploded in acreage.

This was the start of what became the Caldor Fire, the 15th largest fire in California’s history and the largest in the history of El Dorado County. It burned nearly 220,000 acres across northern California, eventually threatening South Lake Tahoe.

But its first victim was Grizzly Flats.

“The ash was like silver dollars coming down,” recalled Magidson. “Pretty frantic; that’s when I made the decision in that moment, ‘We have to go.’”

Yet, even during their evacuation, residents say there was no sign of a firefight.

“It’s just silent… and the sound of houses exploding,” said Tyler.

“Nobody showed up,” recalled Lucas. “There was nobody coming out to help us.”

WATCH MORE from the ABC10 Originals team

Ingram has put his decades of firefighting expertise to work since the Caldor Fire, investigating what exactly happened in the nights leading up to Grizzly burning.

“When you look at an accident that occurs on an incident like this, it’s a lot of pieces that build up into that final result,” said Ingram. “That final result was the town of Grizzly Flats getting destroyed.”

Grizzly Flats residents and elected leaders told ABC10 they believe Grizzly burned because of a series of mismanaged steps by the U.S. Forest Service leadership.

The U.S. Forest Service told ABC10, they disagree.

“We sent every resource we could to (the) initial attack,” said Rogers. “We had direct attack, we initiated direct attack – full suppression just like we had done all year.”

But in his own digging, Ingram discovered a number of failures by the U.S. Forest Service’s leadership, including miscommunication and fire crews being sent down washed-out roads that should have been maintained by the U.S. Forest Service, causing long delays to get to the fire.

ABC10 confirmed this through dispatch audio logs. Here are several excerpts from fire crews communicating back to dispatch:

  • 8-14-2021, 19:46:43 – “Roads inaccessible, complete wash out, trees down.”
  • 8-14-2021, 21:31:10 – “We got heavy trees down and it’s going to be challenging access. We’re going to need the dozer.”
  • 8-14-2021, 19:44:56 – “It is inaccessible, even for a pickup truck.”
  • 8-14-2021, 20:54:37 – “The map they sent doesn’t have a road name.”
  • 8-14-2021, 21:55:03 – Dispatcher: “If you take the road to the left, and then the next road to the left, you can almost get to the fire.” Fire crew: “Yeah, Camino I copy, that road is not there.”
  • 8-14-2021, 21:01:12 – “I don’t want to have everyone heading the wrong direction again.”

“If you’re responsible for that forest, you should know what roads are open, what roads are closed, where the washouts are,” said Ingram.

The U.S. Forest Service should especially know this area because of their own studies done for the Trestle Project, Ingram said.

“That is not acceptable,” said Ingram. “You cannot spend hundreds of thousands of dollars on a fuel study and then ignore it when the fire occurs.”

We brought our findings and recordings to the U.S. Forest Service and asked them why these forest roads were not maintained by their agency, as it’s their responsibility.

“We have thousands of roads on the Eldorado National Forest and the maintenance of those roads is a challenge,” said Rogers. “We don’t have all the funding we need to maintain all the roads to the highest standard.”

But when it came to fighting the fire, Ingram said as it grew out of control, management released crews.

“They just went home; I couldn’t believe it,” said Ingram.

WATCH MORE from the ABC10 Originals team

During our investigation, we found four crews that were released and asked the U.S. Forest Service during our interview about them. The forest service did not know about these specific crews until we asked them. 

Following our interview, they emailed us a detailed account (available at the bottom of this report) telling a different story about two forest service engines. They claimed no crews were released without reason.

Ingram says, no matter which way you look at it, massive miscommunication hindered their firefight.

“At the same time, I’m hearing traffic about how if we don’t catch this tonight, it’s going to be a really big deal,” said Ingram.

Here is an excerpt confirming that from dispatch:

  • 8-14-2021, 22:01:42:
    • Fire crew: “We’re going to need everything we have today.”
    • Dispatcher: “Yeah we have conflicting stories… ‘8600 said it was for tomorrow. We can start – put the order in for crews, I don’t think you’re going to get them tonight.”

ABC10 played this recording to the U.S. Forest Service.

“The process of fighting a fire in the middle of the night is challenging and chaotic,” said Rogers. “I can’t speak to what kind of communication challenges they had.”

But challenges continued even with basic firefighting needs. Issues around accessing specific water areas where firefighting helicopters can dip and gather water to then drop on the fire is shown both in dispatch logs and audio recordings.

“The Forest Service chief came on the radio and said, ‘They’re not allowed to use dip sites where the water is when they’re not approved,'” Ingram said. “They further hampered themselves and their firefighting by doing that.”

When asked about dip site issues, the U.S. Forest Service said this was a tactical question and we’d have to ask the incident management team that was working at the time. It was the same answer we got when we asked why firefighting crews were not sent to Grizzly Flats until nearly three days after the fire first started.

“I can’t speak to the tactics of the incident management team that was in charge at the time,” said Rogers. “I do think that speaks to the broader challenge we had in that year, which was a lack of availability of resources.”

Rogers said the U.S. Forest Service was stretched thin between fighting both the Dixie and Monument Fire as the Caldor Fire broke out.

“There were no other firefighters for us to send those first few days,” said Rogers.

When crews were ordered to Grizzly Flats, it was too late.

“Why they didn’t have equipment immediately sent to Grizzly Flats to help prep the structures prior to the fire getting there, I don’t know,” said Ingram.

630 homes destroyed; Grizzly Flats’ post office, school, church and even the fire station also fell victim. What remains is frustration.

“Somebody dropped the ball,” said Lucas.

Many said the U.S. Forest Service remains reclusive when it comes to answering questions about the Caldor Fire. As we were sitting down for our interview, Rogers mentioned how answering these questions can be difficult.

“It’s hard. Our data systems just don’t speak well to these questions more often than not,” said Rogers.

But during the interview, he mentioned this: “We provided responses to all the media requests we’ve had around the Caldor Fire.”

Our interview with them was one of the first times they’ve sat down on-camera to answer questions that we brought directly from Grizzly Flats locals.

“Why? Why were we left to burn?” asked Tyler.

WATCH MORE from the ABC10 Originals team

Perhaps the biggest question of all came after the discovery the Trestle Project, the U.S. Forest Service’s own promise to help protect Grizzly Flats, was never finished.

“The completion date was originally set for 2020,” said Mary Ann.

Only 15% of the Trestle Project was completed in the 10 years since its formation.

“We feel betrayed. We do,” said Rick. “Only word I can think of… just betrayed.”

As for why only 15% was completed, the U.S. Forest Service said it’s complicated.

“We have numerous projects that are ongoing across the Eldorado National Forest and across the Placerville District,” said Rogers.

He blamed a lack of resources, funding and manpower.

“It was one of our top priorities on our program of work – both for the forest as well as for the district,” said Rogers. “Unfortunately, we didn’t complete more by the start of the Caldor Fire. We certainly would’ve liked to have done that.”

To Ingram, Grizzly Flats and their fire safe council did their part.

“It was [the U.S. Forest Service’s] own study that said we need to clean up this area because of these factors,” said Ingram. “However, the forest service didn’t live up to their side of the bargain.”

And yet, there’s no consequence.

“If you’re a private homeowner and you don’t clean up your property, you can be fined. You can lose your fire insurance,” said Ingram. “If you’re the federal government and you don’t clean up your property – there’s nothing that will happen to you.”

Rogers said it isn’t that simple.

“I think the reality of the fire crisis we’ve seen across the west here, especially in the state of California, is larger than just the forest service,” said Rogers. “It’s in response to climate change. It’s in response to severe drought.”

Locals we spoke with said these excuses don’t justify poor leadership.

“I just want the firefighters on the ground to know that what I have to say is not against them, and they are true heroes,” said Ingram, a retired firefighter himself. “However, the management agency component of that needs to change and it needs to change fast because it’s going to occur again.”

It’s something El Dorado County Supervisor George Turnboo is well aware of. He’s frustrated with the U.S. Forest Service as well as another federal agency.

“President Biden was here,” said Turnboo. “He said he was going to help the residents in Grizzly Flats – and he hasn’t done it.”

During Biden’s visit, El Dorado County Chief Administrative Officer Don Ashton asked Biden directly, noting 25% of Grizzly Flats residents don’t have homeowner’s insurance.

“We’re going to take care of them,” said Biden.

“There’s a lot we can do and it starts off being a federal responsibility in my view,” said Biden shortly after.

Individual assistance from FEMA has been denied three times now to Grizzly Flats survivors – despite it being common for most wildfire victims.

“We’ve just been left in the dark,” said Tyler. “There’s been no assistance from anybody.”

This type of assistance is something that could be life changing, yet in a statement to ABC10, FEMA said Grizzly Flats victims’ needs were not severe enough to “warrant” individual assistance. (Full statement below).

“Because they took the value of all of El Dorado County,” said Turnboo.

This includes vastly wealthier areas like El Dorado Hills and South Lake Tahoe – communities with a different lifestyle than that of Grizzly Flats.

“You’re talking about a poverty-stricken community,” Tyler noted of Grizzly.

WATCH MORE from the ABC10 Originals team

To pinch pennies, Lucas got rid of his fire insurance just five months before the Caldor Fire.

“I’m living on $900 a month,” said Lucas. “Fire insurance boosted our homeowners insurance up to $3,500 a year.”

Lucas logged his own property to try and make money to rebuild but said he received pennies-on-the-dollar for the wood. If FEMA assistance was given, it would be greatly beneficial.

“I have to do all the labor myself,” said Lucas, who is in the midst of trying to rebuild his home.

Magidson is restoring a restaurant, which will be known as the Grizzly Den.

“I should be spending my money on rebuilding my own home,” said Magidson. “This is worth more, giving back and bringing something back to the community… because no one likes to sit in a fifth-wheel.”

It’s something he knows well. He, his two teenagers, and fiancé are living in a trailer on their property. Same as the Tylers.

“We’ve been living in our trailer now for a year and a few months with two kids,” said Tyler.

Still, they feel lucky. Others in Grizzly are living in tents. So, why stay?

“Because it’s home,” said Tyler. “It’s home.”


FEMA full statement to ABC10:

"Federal disaster assistance supplements available state and local resources in responding to and recovering from damages beyond their combined capabilities. Based on documentation provided by the state, and collected in local/state/federal preliminary damage assessments, the President determined that the impact to individuals and households from the Caldor Fire was not of such severity and magnitude to warrant the designation of the Individual Assistance (IA) program. 44 CFR Part 206.46, which sets the rules and regulations on the implementation of the Robert T. Stafford Disaster Relief and Emergency Assistance Act, explains that states can request a one-time appeal, along with appropriate additional information, after the denial of a declaration. After thorough review of all the information contained in the state’s initial request and appeal for IA in El Dorado County, the President reaffirmed his findings on November 12, 2021.

FEMA covered 90 percent of all costs associated with debris removal; life-saving emergency protective measures; the repair, replacement and restoration of disaster-damaged publicly owned facilities like roads, bridges, buildings and parks; and the facilities of certain private non-profit organizations under its Public Assistance (PA) program. To date, FEMA has provided El Dorado County $97,320,454.53 in PA, with more money in the pipeline. For states with enhanced hazard mitigation plans, like California, Hazard Mitigation Assistance (HMA) on up to 20 percent of the estimated total federal assistance for the Caldor Fire disaster is available, which is projected at $33,204,741."

USFS response to ABC10's findings of four crews being released:

Note: The USFS did not respond to the two other engines from Cal Fire and local municipalities.

U.S. Forest Service Engine 365:

"After listening to the audio and further review we can confirm the following. At 6:54pm on 8/14 when the Caldor Fire was reported, E365 was one of the initial engines dispatched. The Engine Captain confirmed with dispatch and went enroute at 7:01 pm. E365 was on scene in the area of the fire and assisting with gaining access to the location at 7:44 pm. E365 was able to provide direction into the location at 7:58pm. At 9:41 pm E365 contacted dispatch to notify them that they were returning to Sierra Springs for an assignment they had scheduled the following day. Immediately following, at 9:42pm dispatch advised E365 per ENF Chief 1, they are to remain on scene and their previous assignment would be adjusted. What this means is that E365 had a resource order to another fire and their travel day was 8/15. Those orders were adjusted and E365 was reassigned to the Caldor fire and therefore, did not leave the incident the evening of 8/14."

U.S. Forest Service Engine 366:

"E366 was not originally dispatched to the Caldor fire. E366 was covering in the Georgetown district. Therefore, at 7:03 pm when you hear the crew stating that they are returning to quarters, they were actually returning from their cover in Georgetown to their home station. E366 arrived in quarters at 8:17 pm. Battalion 61 confirmed they were available at 8:35 pm and were immediately requested and responded to the Caldor fire. E366 was first dispatched to the Caldor at 8:36 pm and remained on scene throughout that night.

The situation with E366 demonstrates what District Ranger Scot Rogers was explaining during his interview, regarding not sending all resources out immediately on all calls for service. Allowing units to remain in service to provide cover around the forest and be available to respond for additional calls for service.

At 8:30pm, it was determined by responding chief officers that due to the terrain, access could only be made by a type 3 or smaller engine. All type 3 engines were instructed to respond into the area, and non-type 3 engines were to stage on a hard surface. As the evening progressed all available type 3 engines were dispatched to the Caldor fire and worked through the evening. The initial dispatch had a variety of type 1 and 3 engines dispatched."

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