USA – Ivo Dachev was among the first to lose his home to the Caldor Fire — and wanted to know why the fire wasn’t smothered in its infancy in the Eldorado National Forest.
“I tell you what, the fire started one to two acres as a brush fire,” said the Grizzly Flats resident, shortly after learning his home had burned down. “It’s like a disease; you have to get it at the beginning.”
More than two weeks later, as the Caldor Fire spills into the Lake Tahoe basin and threatens one of America’s most breathtaking locales, some folks back in Grizzly Flats — tiny, rural Grizzly Flats, largely destroyed and still smoldering 40 miles to the west — are saying this disaster could have been prevented.
Dachev said the USDA Forest Service, which owns and operates the Eldorado forest, reacted “horribly” when the fire ignited.
“I was a forester,” Dachev said. “They knew what was going to happen when the fire hit that forest. They sent 100 to 200 people up here to dig trenches instead of sending a dozer to put that out. We’re fighting fires like 50 years ago.”
When a small wildfire morphs into something serious, the lead firefighting agency usually catches grief for not putting it out sooner. This year, in California, the criticism is piling up more frequently than usual — and is being directed at one government agency in particular.
The Forest Service — caretaker of 20 million acres of California land, one-fifth of the entire state — is having to defend itself over its handling of a number of big fires. Among them: the Beckwourth Complex, the massive Dixie Fire and, most recently, the Caldor.
The chorus of complaints has been bipartisan. Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom groused that the agency took a passive approach to the Tamarack Fire, which sprawled across the border into Nevada earlier this summer. So did Republican Rep. Tom McClintock.
In heavily Republican Lassen County, the Board of Supervisors dispatched a blistering letter to the Forest Service over the Beckwourth, Dixie and two smaller fires from previous years.
In July, elected officials in the GOP stronghold of Siskiyou County were irate when the Lava Fire, which seemingly had been put to rest, reared up and devoured more than 25,000 acres of the Shasta-Trinity National Forest. “I apologize for that getting out,” the forest’s fire management officer Todd Mack told a town hall meeting. “And I’ll take the heat for that.”
This all came a year after elected officials complained when the three-week-old Bear Fire, in the Plumas forest, suddenly reared up and devoured the Butte County community of Berry Creek, killing 15 people in the deadliest wildfire of 2020.
Agency officials say they’ve done all they can — under trying circumstances, often in rugged and hard-to-reach terrain — to attack fires before they spin out of control. But they say they don’t have enough resources to extinguish every fire in a part of the country where climate change is intensifying the severity of wildfire season.
NEWSOM HITS FOREST SERVICE, BEGS BIDEN FOR WILDFIRE HELP
Of all the criticisms heaped on the agency, Newsom’s were arguably the most damning. Or at least the most influential.
Soon after inspecting damage from the Tamarack, the governor joined a video conference call with Biden and other Western governors.
The Forest Service, Newsom said, had adopted a stance that “too often is wait and see,” Newsom told Biden. “We need your help to change the culture in terms of the suppression strategies … to be more aggressive on these federal fires.”
Days later, Agriculture Secretary Tom Vilsack, who oversees the Forest Service, flew to California to meet with Newsom at the Mendocino National Forest, where the largest wildfire in the state’s history burned last year.
Vilsack acknowledged that the agency has been under-funded and pledged “more boots on the ground” to fight fires and conduct forest “thinning” projects that many scientists believe can tame big fires.
“He has challenged us to do a better job,” Vilsack said. Newsom said he welcomed Vilsack’s promises of more assistance. The Forest Service spent about half as much fighting fires in California last year as Cal Fire.
About the same time, Randy Moore, the newly appointed chief of the Forest Service, circulated a memo to his staff vowing a tougher approach as the wildfire crisis worsens throughout the drought-stricken West.
“The 2021 fire year is different from any before,” wrote Moore, who until recently was the agency’s top official in California.
California Gov. Gavin Newsom and Secretary of Agriculture Tom Vilsack in Glenn County on Wednesday, Aug. 4, 2021, to discuss stepped-up efforts to spot and fight fires on Forest Service land. Dale Kasler
Nonetheless, agency officials said Moore’s memo doesn’t represent a wholesale rewrite of Forest Service protocols. Because of strained resources and the proliferation of fires, Moore wrote that the agency will continue to make tough choices about launching initial attacks on new incidents — a point he reiterated when he accompanied Vilsack to California.
“You only have so many firefighters,” Moore said in an interview.
COULD THE CALDOR FIRE HAVE BEEN STOPPED?
The Caldor Fire started just before 7 p.m. on Aug. 14 in a remote area of the Eldorado forest, about 10 miles south of Highway 50; the cause remains under investigation. After burning relatively quietly, the fire roared to life two days later, burning Dachev’s home on Meadow Glen Drive and much of the rest of Grizzly Flats as residents scrambled to evacuate.
Before long, the fire would force the closure of a nearly 50-mile stretch of Highway 50 and chew through more than 204,000 acres on a relentless, wind-blown march toward the evacuated city of South Lake Tahoe. More than 540 homes and businesses had been destroyed, and nearly 35,000 other buildings were considered in danger of burning as firefighters struggled to limit the damage inside the Tahoe basin.
Once it blew up, the Caldor Fire quickly strained firefighting resources, federal and state alike. Two days after the destruction of Grizzly Flats, with the fire already at 30,000 acres, the Forest Service and Cal Fire had just 242 firefighters and other personnel assigned to the fire.
Conditions were so perilous at one point that Cal Fire dispatched 30 engines from the much larger Dixie Fire to assist in El Dorado County. Officials at the Forest Service and Cal Fire later said the Caldor had become the top priority in the nation for bringing in additional crews and equipment. As of Wednesday, staffing on the fire had ballooned to more than 4,200.
As the fire raced along Highway 50 like a harried motorist, some people left in its wake were upset with the Forest Service.
“It seems to me they understate the volatility, or the ability of the fire to get away from them,” said Michael Hicks, the owner of the historic Strawberry Lodge, which narrowly escaped the flames. “These guys are supposed to be the experts.”
Hicks, who’s in escrow to sell the lodge, said another property he owns, an empty 30-acre parcel by Topaz Lake along the California-Nevada border, was nearly burned by the Tamarack — the fire that sparked Newsom’s complaint to Biden. “That fire never should have gotten away,” Hicks said.
Meanwhile, Grizzly Flats remained a scene of almost complete devastation. A few days after the fire blew through town, the charred frames of cars and trucks sat parked near chimneys — the only structures left on many homes.
Logs continued burning next to downed power lines, and a dead dog lay by the side of String Canyon Road, the main thoroughfare. Twisted metal chairs were arrayed in little rows in what was left of Grizzly Flats Community Church, while a pair of “little free libraries” — a Boy Scout troop project — sat undisturbed, stocked with books, 100 feet away.
Meanwhile, some evacuees fumed at the Forest Service.
“The stupid thing started at 7 o’clock Saturday evening,” said Will Berndt, whose house survived. “If they brought the stinking helicopters out before it got dark. …They said, ‘Well, we couldn’t bring the helicopters out because it was getting dark.’
“No, it wasn’t. You had til 8:30 before it got dark, where you could have put something on it and put it out.”
Forest Service officials said the nature of the Caldor Fire, which started a few miles south of Grizzly Flats, made it very difficult to fight in its early days.
“One of the limiting factors on that fire was there was quite a bit of smoke on top of that fire,” said Anthony Scardina, the agency’s deputy forester for California. “Once the smoke settles in that air, the air space … our initial attack becomes limited.”
He said it didn’t help that the fire began in “tough terrain” that made it difficult for firefighters to reach.
Could it have been brought under control right away? “Between the federal and state and local resources … we did everything we could have,” Scardina said.
Skepticism lingers in Grizzly Flats, however.
Margarito “Ito” Verdugo fled with just “my blankets and my dog and her bowls” to an RV parked by the post office in nearby Somerset, just outside the evacuation zone.
Verdugo, whose home apparently survived, said neighbors tell him the fire should have been put out sooner.
“If it’s going on government land, they don’t do anything; they let it burn,” they tell him.
As a Bay Area transplant and a newcomer to wildfire country, he isn’t sure what to believe.
On the afternoon of July 4, about a day and a half after they started, they had burned a total of just 1,650 acres. The Dotta was 24% contained. The Sugar, at the southern end of the forest, was 15% contained.
“Things are looking really good,” said Jake Cagle, operations section chief with the California Interagency Incident Management Team, said in a video briefing posted on Facebook.
Paul Roen, a bulldozer operator who frequently contracts with the Forest Service, spent two days helping build a containment line in the vicinity of Sugar Mountain, where the Sugar Fire was burning.
Then he was told to go home.
An official from the Forest Service told Roen that he hadn’t been authorized to assist on the fire. Roen, a member of the Board of Supervisors in nearby Sierra County, left along with his two bulldozers. He said the Forest Service also pulled off some engines and a “hotshot” crew of firefighters
Three days later, what had been a small fire blew up into what became known as the Beckwourth Complex. Roen was called back, along with other equipment and personnel, but the Beckwourth Complex was now a serious incident. A week after he was first sent away, 33 homes burned down in the Lassen County community of Doyle. Although it’s now 98% contained, the Beckwourth has burned more than 105,000 acres, making it one of the largest wildfires of the year in California.
Roen said the Forest Service was is to blame for letting the fire explode. “They didn’t give it the seriousness it deserved,” Roen said.
“You could look up on the hill and see cherry reds — you could see the hot spots, you could see them,” he added. “You’ve got to go and put it out.”
Christopher Carlton, the forest supervisor for the Plumas forest, said in an interview that the agency didn’t overlook the dangers lurking in the Beckwourth Complex, as Roen believes.
The agency launched “a full-suppression initial attack,” Carlton said. “We were dumping the house, we call it, everything we had …. We had multiple engines, dozers, air attack, a hotshot crew.” The total personnel on the fire in those early days never fell below 260, he said.
So what happened? After a brief period of rain, the terrain quickly dried out.
“Some interior heat got picked up by the wind,” he said. “We had extreme growth.”
FOREST SERVICE CALLED ‘DERELICT.’ IS FUNDING THE PROBLEM?
Newsom wasn’t the only elected official pouncing on the Forest Service this summer. McClintock, the Republican congressman, demanded answers about the Forest Service’s response to the Tamarack Fire and argued that all fires should be “suppressed as soon as possible.”
The Lassen County Board of Supervisors called on Vilsack and Moore to explain how the Beckwourth Complex and Dixie Fire got out of control, saying the Forest Service has been “derelict in its duty” and is “unprepared and incapable of planning for and managing wildfires.”
Not everyone is pointing a finger at the Forest Service. But Timothy Ingalsbee, a prominent retired Forest Service firefighter who often is an outspoken critic of his former employer, refuses to second-guess the agency’s initial response to newly-started fires.
What’s more, trying to put out every fire at once can be unrealistic, he said.
“Sending crews to attack all fires in all places … spreads the resources thin,” Ingalsbee said.
There’s little question that the Forest Service is spread thin. The agency spent $1.3 billion fighting wildfires in California last year, Scardina said. By contrast, Cal Fire’s budget for last year was more than $2.4 billion and has grown to more than $3.4 billion this year. The Cal Fire figures include spending on preventive measures.
A U.S. Forest Service bulletin board displays information about closures and evacuations at the Lake Valley Fire District Headquarters in Meyers, Calif., on Thursday, Aug. 26, 2021. California weather is heating up and winds are shifting as more than 14,000 firefighters battled wildfires up and down the state, including a major blaze they hoped to keep out of the Lake Tahoe resort region. (AP Photo/Sam Metz) Sam Metz AP
Porter, the Cal Fire director, said recently that “it’s been hard to watch” the Forest Service struggle with funding problems. The U.S. agriculture secretary agreed.
“Over the generations, over the decades, we have tried to do this job on the cheap,” Vilsack said during his visit to California. “The reality is that this has caught up with us.”
He promised that the agency will beef up its California wildfire budget, “if we have the resources.”
That will depend, to a great degree, on whether Congress passes Biden’s infrastructure bill, he said. The bill has passed the Senate and the House is expected to vote in October.
The argument that the Forest Service doesn’t go after fires aggressively is ironic, to say the least.
Scarred by the legendary Great Fire of 1910 — a complex of as many as 3,000 fires across Idaho, Montana and Washington — the Forest Service long sought to stamp out every fire as quickly as possible. Its strategy became known as the “10 a.m. policy” — an in-house doctrine that called for “thorough suppression of all fires in all locations,” with the goal of extinguishing any fire by 10 a.m. the day after it was first reported.
The agency got so good at the 10 a.m. policy that critics said the Forest Service was putting some fires out too quickly, leaving the forest dangerously thick with trees and other vegetation.
“Over the past 100 years or more, we’ve been putting fires out,” Scardina said. “We’ve had fuels build up.” The agency controls 57% of California’s forested land.
Starting in the 1970s, the agency has moderated its policies, allowing some “good” fires to burn naturally — a nod to the millions of acres that once burned annually, effectively cleaning up the forests, before whites arrived in the West. The agency has also embraced “prescribed burns,” in which fires are deliberately lit, under controlled conditions, to remove combustible vegetation.
In recent years, though, drought and climate change have dramatically intensified wildfires, and left the Forest Service scrambling to find the right balance between putting out dangerous fires and pro-actively managing the forests to keep new fires from igniting.
Given the extraordinary risks of mega-fires, “we recognized that we were going to have to put fires out,” Scardina said.
He added that the agency is able to suppress almost every fire quickly: “We are successful 98% of the time on initial attack.” But he added that some of the recent big fires have begun in places where deploying firefighters right away isn’t feasible — or safe — because of difficult terrain and other factors.
“We have lots of situations where you simply can’t put firefighters,” Scardina said.
The agency’s pledge to fight fires more aggressively has some wildfire experts on edge.
Ingalsbee, the retired Forest Service firefighter, fears the agency will over-react and begin restricting prescribed burns. Similarly, a group of 41 wildfire scientists from Western universities just sent Moore a letter urging the Forest Service chief to stick with prescribed fire — and the practice of allowing “natural ignitions” to keep burning, within reason.
The alternative, they said, would simply make conditions worse.
“Unintentionally, a policy of full suppression contributes to fuel accumulation across fire-prone landscapes,” they wrote.
The Forest Service says California’s emergency conditions are complicating the agency’s efforts to manage forests by conducting prescribed burns and allowing some fires to burn naturally. “With a roughly year-round fire season, those windows of opportunity are getting smaller,” Scardina said.
But the agency insists it isn’t returning to the old days, either.
In the memo he circulated in early August, Moore said firefighters will be deployed only where “they can operate safely and effectively.” That means some fires won’t get extinguished right away.
“This is not a return to the ‘10 a.m. Policy,’ ” Moore wrote.
The Bee’s Ryan Sabalow contributed to this report.