Roughly seven months ago, on a Saturday evening in mid-August, a wildfire sprang to life just outside Omo Ranch, an unincorporated community a 40-minutes drive southeast of Placerville.
The flames, aided by the cover of night and mountainous terrain, spread to 400 acres within 24 hours. Three days after that, on Aug. 18, the wildfire had grown to 62,500 acres in size and was 0% contained.
The Caldor Fire, ultimately burning across 221,835 acres of California land, destroyed more than 1,000 structures and became the number one wildfire across the U.S. in terms of resources needed and imminent threat to civilization. The entire City of South Lake Tahoe, population upwards of 22,000 plus visitors, was under mandatory evacuation as Caldor’s flames licked its outskirts and came within four miles of Lake Tahoe’s southern shore.
“It is the biggest event in history in Lake Tahoe,” said Cal Fire Assistant Chief Brian Newman, who served as an operations section chief during Caldor.
Now, after several months of winter, the fire is extinguished on the surface — precipitation in October saw to that — though holdovers, or lasting flames, are likely to occur once nature dries out a bit. When the intensity of a fire is high enough, root systems of trees will hold the heat and can smolder for more than a year after the main event.
Charges have been filed by the El Dorado County district attorney against a father and son — David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32 — for causing the fire.
Hindsight, as always, offers a clearer picture of the good, the bad, and the ugly.
The good: A decade of fuel reduction efforts (including the necessary kind of fire: prescribed) thinned out the trees in Christmas Valley, Meyers, and the Pioneer Trail area and kept Caldor from adding to the total of 1,003 destroyed structures.
The bad: Out with the old fire-fighting tactics; in with the ones that won’t exacerbate large scale wildfires.
“We have seen that what we’ve been doing isn’t working,” said Carrie Thaler, fire chief of the U.S. Forest Service’s Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit. “If we really want to be able to take action and change the conditions that are out there, we need a new strategy.”
Forest Service leadership stated last summer that its fire management policy — allowing wildfire to burn in specific cases that would provide benefits to natural resources, rather than immediate dousal — was expired due to extreme conditions. The Forest Service’s new approach is outlined in the January 2022 Wildfire Crisis Strategy, which looks 10 years down the road and proposes treating 50 million acres of land across the country with fuels and forest treatment. (To some, however, the new Forest Service strategy is simply dressing up the same old practices.)
The ugly: Human beings, stand down; climate change is calling the shots. Rising global temperature have inevitably led to an increase in wildfire frequency, length, and coverage area.
“People are clinging to this past idea that it’s actually physically possible for us to keep putting out all the fires, and that if we just spend more money on helicopters and airplanes we can keep up with the changing climate and we can not have Dixie fires [another 2021 wildfire], but it’s not possible,” said Zeke Lunder, a geographer with nearly three decades of experience involved with large fire management, prescribed burning, and public safety. He’s the mind behind The Lookout, a fairly new website functioning as a journalism and public education platform providing detailed explanations on wildfire movement in Northern California.
“We lost the war on wildfire; it’s over. Fire won.”
Travis Smith, one of the men charged with arson, called 911 at 6:50 p.m. on Aug. 14 to report the fire. Minutes later, emergency responders found smoke and a ground fire in a remote area of the Eldorado National Forest. An interagency dispatch center, staffed by both Cal Fire and Forest Service staff, was notified and sent multiple agencies to respond: Cal Fire, Forest Service, Pioneer Fire Protection District, and California Highway Patrol. General practice for dispatching responders to a fire is that the closest available resources attend. That was the case here.
Because the fire was on Eldorado National Forest land, the incident number CA-ENF-024030 became associated with the wildfire event.
Ninety personnel, seven engines, one helicopter, two dozers, and one water tender battled the Caldor Fire directly that night, but the flames had spread to 45 acres in size by 9 a.m. the next day.
“We put a full initial attack of resources on this fire and did everything that we could to extinguish the fire when it was small, but it burned with a lot of intensity,” said Cal Fire’s Newman.
That same day, Aug. 15, Cal Fire and the Forest Service formally entered unified command, a common practice for the two agencies. When a fire becomes a complex, multi-day incident, an incident management team is then assigned to provide oversight.
“We do this day in and day out with interagency and unified command,” Newman said. “… This is not something outside the norm or something we have to kind of dance around and figure it out. It’s something that we do all the time. We do drills on it, we practice on it, we have meetings about it.”
The initial top-most leadership on the Caldor, known as incident commanders, were Jeffrey Veik and Dusty Martin of Cal Fire and James Thornock of the Forest Service. Because the fire was progressing from a small initial-attack fire into a major fire, leadership changed hands a few times to place people who were appropriately qualified for the size. U.S. Forest Service leadership shifted from Thornock to Ben Newburn to Joe Reinarz (from Boise, Idaho), with the addition of Rocky Oplinger out of San Bernardino once the fire separated into western and eastern portions. Cal Fire incident commanders stayed the same throughout.
By 7 p.m. on Aug. 15, the fire was up to 400 acres. Three days later it reached 62,586 acres. At that point, only 601 personnel were battling the blaze — about one firefighter for every 104 acres.
“We talk a lot about initial attack,” The Lookout’s Lunder said. “And once fires escape initial attack, then we have a day or two to get around them before they become campaign fires. Under our current conditions, that kind of extended attack is really difficult because when fires are spotting half a mile ahead of themselves or a mile ahead of themselves at that point, there’s nothing really that we can do about it. We could have all of the air tankers in the world and if the fire’s spotting a mile, it doesn’t matter. It’s gonna burn until the weather conditions change.”
Wasteful Hail Marys
As readers will recall, the Caldor Fire was not the first wildfire to impact the Tahoe Basin during the summer of 2021. The Tamarack Fire, caused by lightning, started on the Fourth of July about 16 miles south of Gardnerville, Nevada. Nine days later the Dixie Fire was started by a tree falling on a power line. Both filled the Basin with smoke.
Those two wildfires were on paths that Caldor would soon follow, and Lunder said he recognized the fire’s destination earlier than fire agency heads were admitting.
“It’s all about looking at what the fire did yesterday, and if nothing has changed the conditions, then you anticipate that the fire’s gonna do the same thing tomorrow that it did today,” he explained. “So, when we look at the Dixie Fire and what it was doing every day in the same fuels, in the same weather, we had a really good framing of the potential. I’ve just watched the Dixie Fire kick and resist all control for a month and every day, so … it was pretty clear that the Caldor was gonna do the same thing.”
The fire blew through the Grizzly Flats community on Aug. 17, causing significant damage despite 20 years of forest-thinning efforts. On Jan. 21, the El Dorado County Assessor’s Office shared that it had completed 96% of reductions to assessed values of properties affected by Caldor.
“Of the reductions completed so far, 60% are in the Grizzly Flat region, with the other 40% mostly located along Highway 50,” said the county’s assistant assessor, Danielle Yandow, in a press release. “The total assessed value reduction to date is $106 million, which is just over $1 million in property tax.”
Grizzly Flats now a victim, Lunder was turning his thoughts to Caldor’s progression toward the Tahoe Basin.
Eldorado National Forest Supervisor Jeff Marsolais admitted to Caldor’s ability to outpace fire forecasting models on Aug. 17 during a community meeting. (“That’s how firefighting has been in the state this year,” he allowed.) With the outpacing came the inability of crews to get in front of the flames and prepare the forests with dozer lines, which are areas cleared of trees by bulldozers, and flame retardant — ideally something that’s happening a week to 10 days out.
“When I say outpace, it’s that you don’t have the time-space to make that big 10-day plan,” Lunder said. “… Even though we didn’t have the time-space to put in a dozer line that would hold the fire … we still put a huge amount of energy into carving these huge dozer lines in there, but it was this Hail Mary that most people don’t expect is actually gonna work.”
Another approach to fighting fires is “backfiring,” or the act of purposely setting a perimeter aflame to consume fuel in advance of the wildfire, thus slowing it when the flames hit that area. The tactic has caused issues in the past, Newman said, where someone backfired at the wrong time in the wrong spot and caused the wildfire to get bigger. He didn’t have specific examples of backfires-gone-bad, but did note, “that was a struggle this year because the backfires were burning very intensely. They were spotting outside of control lines on their own. We really had to widen control lines, spend a lot more time building control lines in really advantageous places compared to previous years [when] we may have been able to get away with not necessarily the most advantageous places or not as wide control lines.”
Lunder didn’t have any major criticism of the attempts to contain Caldor, though he did mention too many resources were wasted on “Hail Marys;” but he believes nothing could’ve been done differently to stop the flames from reaching the Basin.
Cal Fire leadership, on the other hand, was holding out hope. Then-director Thom Porter, who has since retired, said in a state leadership briefing that while Caldor was “knocking on the door” of the Tahoe Basin as of Aug. 23, he didn’t think it’d make it that far. In the same briefing, Porter also classified Caldor as the number one fire in the nation in terms of prioritized need for resources.
End in sight
On Aug. 30, the Caldor Fire breached the Tahoe Basin’s boundaries, leaping from Echo Summit and spotting down into Christmas Valley, a community of about 600 homes. What could’ve been the first structural casualties in the Basin were protected thanks to years of forest management and an intense firefight.
New arrivals alleviated the strapped resources on the ground; being named the top prioritized fire in the country had its benefits. At this point, nearly 3,800 personnel were involved.
“We had 17 additional engines from the Lake Tahoe Basin that came down to the neighborhoods of Christmas Valley and Meyers to support,” said Forest Service Chief Thaler, who served as fire management liaison during Caldor. “… Being able to get so many more resources from across the country — the engines, the dozers, and all those resources, to have them come into Lake Tahoe and make a difference [helped] protect the community.”
The fire was now separated into two areas, eastern and western branches. The U.S. Forest Service leadership was head of the eastern portion, while Cal Fire maintained leadership for the western part.
As new resources arrived, others were pulled off the frontline and put into waiting mode. The sight of these firefighters not in action concerned members of the public who saw them.
“The perception is when we say we have 5,000 firefighters on the line, that all 5,000 of them are [fighting the fire] at this given point at that given time,” said Newman. “[But] someone may be going away from a fire to go get water in a fire engine, or go get fuel, or they’re released for the night so that we hold and maintain the fire as it is. And then we can use those resources the next day when we’ll be able to capitalize on the daylight and the weather. Or because we’re so thin on resources, we needed to just hold that fire in at night with the resources we had, and those guys have to come back the next day because we don’t have other agency replacements.”
Thaler pointed out that while the Caldor Fire was an all-hands-on-deck situation, there still needed to be staff on hand at the home base fire stations in case another fire cropped up.
“Right around when the fire initially entered the Lake Tahoe Basin, we had a lightning event come through and we had … some lightning starts,” she said. “So [the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit’s fire duty officer] had resources to respond to those so we didn’t have a second big fire in the Basin.”
Upon its arrival to the Basin, the Caldor Fire’s future was short-lived. Calm winds and humidity aided firefighting crews and containment jumped from 15% on Aug. 30 to 50% by Sept. 7. “Basically, it ran out of gas,” Lunder said. “It jumped at Meyers and it burned up into the desert, basically burned up on the mountain where it ran out of fuel … It was hemmed in by granite on the north side of Highway 50, it was hemmed in by the desert on the east, it was hemmed in by the high country of Kirkwood.”
By Sept. 5, evacuation orders in the Tahoe Basin began to lift.
Playing nice and moving forward
Rumors of animosity, in part fueled by an opinion piece out of Moonshine Ink’s October 2020 edition, between Cal Fire and the Forest Service spread just as rampantly as Caldor’s flames both during and after the incident.
Emotions were running high after the devastating effects of the Tamarack Fire, which started July 4 and was still actively burning during Caldor’s massive runs. The Forest Service was being skewered for what some members of the public and political sphere saw as botched fire management. Tamarack incident staff, struggling with available resources and feeling fairly confident that the surrounding granite rocks and sparse fuels would help contain the flames, had chosen to monitor rather than suppress the fire for 13 days. But extreme winds blew up the fire from a quarter of an acre to over 20,000 within a week. Its damage was still fresh in the public’s mind as Caldor was sparked.
Allegations swirled that a contentious relationship between Cal Fire and Forest Service on the frontlines was leading to mistakes and mismanagement. Leadership from both agencies shot down the claims. Just over a month after the Moonshine Ink op-ed, which was written by an anonymous firefighter with 30 years of experience in the state of California, the Forest Service’s regional forester for the Pacific Southwest Region, Jennifer Eberlien, responded in the Sacramento Bee. In it, she pushed back on the perception that the Forest Service has a “let it burn” policy, writing, “We develop a suppression strategy for each wildfire based on environmental conditions; risks to communities, infrastructure and firefighter safety; and available resources.” She also pointed out the need for proactive work to fight fires by addressing the “overly dense forest conditions” across California.
Newman had a similar take: “There was not any animosity between the agencies to begin with. We do unify command every day … and this was very much an example of that cooperation that we are very comfortable with.”
He went on to say that, admittedly, tactics to combat the Caldor Fire were not perfect — but they rarely are. The agencies involved with the Caldor have held after-action reviews at multiple levels, from crews to chiefs and everywhere in between. Newman said these meetings home in on the imperfections. Questions such as, How could we have done this differently? Was this good? Was this bad? What would we change if we had to do it again? are asked and answered, and events are learned from.
“Obviously we have many lessons learned,” Newman shared in a later email. “Some are validation of use of tactics, evacuation planning effort successes and challenges, and fuel treatment areas that were effective and how we can improve those efforts.”
Fire’s future in California is inevitable. According to Newman, 2021 was the first time in recorded history that a wildfire crossed from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other. In fact, two fires claimed the dubious milestone, and there’s no sign conditions are changing.
The success of fuels reduction in South Lake Tahoe, which helped stop the rage of Caldor, points to a path forward, though it’s not a guarantee — Grizzly Flats and its surrounding areas, after all, also had thinning projects done for decades before more than 600 residences were destroyed during Caldor.
“We’ve got a lot of people living in terrible places in California, the places like Grizzly Flats and Paradise and Shingletown and Nevada City,” Lunder said. “We’ve got some places that we’re gonna lose them no matter how much brush cutting we do just because they’re [located in] fire’s home.”
The scale of the problem is beyond the human’s ability to fully prepare the backcountry, he continued. Thinning 200,000 acres of forest in Tahoe doesn’t mean there will be no more wildfire. Fighting against the inevitable only provides more time. Lunder pushed for home hardening as the number one way to reduce wildfire’s risk on human lives.
“It’s more about cutting brush around your house and replacing your wood siding with concrete boards and moving stuff away from your house and putting a sidewalk [or] gravel right up against your foundation,” he said. “Really hardening your community in anticipation that it’s gonna come again ‘cause it’s gonna come.”