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How U.S. Forest Service mismanagement fueled California's Caldor Fire

California wildfires & U.S. Forest Service
Evidence shows U.S. Forest Service mismanagement contributed to California wildfire | 60 Minutes 13:16

The California gold-rush town of Grizzly Flats was founded in 1851. People came for the gold but stayed for the trees. Lumber from lush forests supported Sierra Nevada foothill towns for decades. Then, one August night in 2021, the Caldor Fire roared out of the Eldorado National Forest and in less than 15 minutes, Grizzly Flats was gone. Today, the community's anger is still raw. Many residents blame the U.S. Forest Service for letting a few-acre blaze morph into a monstrous wildfire. In our months-long investigation, we found evidence of mismanagement by the Forest Service and critics who say its outdated tactics and overgrown lands have led to millions of acres and foothill towns burning needlessly. We went to Grizzly Flats to see for ourselves what happened that August night when a wall of fire ripped through town. 

Candance Tyler: I took a couple pictures of my house knowing that that would be the last time I ever saw it. 

Bill Whitaker: You knew that? 

Candance Tyler: Yeah, I mean, when you got hot embers raining down on ya and your friends and family's houses are exploding and you're listening to it; and there ain't nothing between here and them to stop it, you know your fate. 

Candance Tyler's world went up in flames on August 17, when the Caldor Fire tore out of the Eldorado National Forest and burned the family ranch to the ground.  

Bill Whitaker: So where was your house? 

Candance Tyler: So right here would have been our bedroom. And then over here, this would have been walking into our dining room.

Candance Tyler shows correspondent Bill Whitaker around the ruins left by the Caldor Fire

The Tylers have lived on this hilltop for five generations. Today, their homestead is a charred hellscape. Blackened trees stand like sentinels over a shadow world. For more than a year, the Tylers and their two children have lived in a trailer.

More than 600 homes—nearly all of Grizzly Flats—were destroyed in minutes. The Caldor Fire would burn for two months, scorching more than 200,000 acres and costing $271 million to extinguish.

Bill Whitaker: When it first started, did you have confidence that the Forest Service would handle it? Would put it out?

Candance Tyler: Absolutely. A hundred percent. A 40-acre fire, you can't put that out in a canyon? And don't get me wrong, I lived here my whole life. I know that's a steep treacherous canyon, but you're still telling me that you don't have the ability and the equipment to put it out? They didn't do nothing. In our opinion, they did nothing to put this fire out.

Caldor started as a small plume of smoke about four miles south of Grizzly Flats. It was August 14, 7 p.m. This was federal land so the U.S. Forest Service was in charge, responsible for calling in firefighters and resources. We discovered that problems started right away: maps were out of date, firefighters had trouble finding the fire. As she was listening to her police scanner, Candance Tyler told us her heart sank.

Candance Tyler: They're sending them down Caldor Road. Well, it's been washed out for three years. How are you gonna get a tanker down there? Have you seen the washout? It's—it's huge. It would take a month of Sundays to fill that hole in or cut a new road. 

We went to see what Tyler was talking about. Keeping national forests healthy—including maintaining roads—is a big part of the Forest Service's mandate. But we found many roads in the Eldorado Forest were impassable—blocked by downed trees and deep ruts. when Caldor broke out, fire engines had to backtrack, a costly two- hour delay. 

Grant Ingram: I can't believe that it was even happening. It was like watching a slow-motion disaster. 

  Grant Ingram

Grant Ingram also was listening to his scanner. A retired fire captain with 35 years experience, Ingram fought fires for the U.S. Forest Service and for Cal Fire, California's state agency. Ingram investigated the initial spread of the fire for the local fire district. He believes the U.S. Forest Service management team bears much of the blame.

Grant Ingram: The leadership failed to give the team on the ground what they needed to do to put that fire out in a timely manner.

Bill Whitaker: You flat out say it's a failure of leadership? 

Grant Ingram: Absolutely. They failed to understand where the fire was gonna go. Then they failed to bring in enough equipment and resources to mitigate that fire. And then, they failed to protect the community of Grizzly Flats when they knew it was headed that way.

Ingram told us one of the most consequential decisions came in the early hours of August 15, when the fire was still small. At 1:43 a.m.—just hours into the fire—the Forest Service shut down operations for the night. "Will be pulling everyone off the line for accountability" reads the dispatch log, a minute-by-minute account of the fire that we obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The Forest Service told us conditions were unsafe and it wanted to reassess.  

Grant Ingram: When I worked for other agencies, we typically fought fires at night. That was the best time to do it. 

Bill Whitaker: But yet this Forest Service incident commander was ordering people to stop.

Grant Ingram: Yes.

Bill Whitaker: Turn back, go home.

Grant Ingram: Right. I couldn't believe it at first. Firefighting is dangerous but you don't call 9-1-1 when you're a firefighter. You are there as 9-1-1.

The remains of a forest burned by the Caldor Fire

The order to pull out didn't sit well with state and local firefighters who'd raced in to help the Forest Service. A number of them told us that night was their best chance to contain the fire. They also told us they're trained to fight wildfires 24/7 until the fire is out. None would go on camera for fear of losing their jobs, so we agreed to conceal this firefighter's identity. 

Bill Whitaker: So when you heard the incident commander say he was pulling out, and other equipment, fire engines and bulldozers left with him, what did you think? 

FIREFIGHTER: What in the world's going on here? I mean, like what the hell? We have a fire. You have to suppress the fire. It—it's just that simple.

Bill Whitaker: Did you know that this had the potential to turn into this? 

FIREFIGHTER: Absolutely. Yeah, I think everybody on that hill that night figured that if we didn't get ahead of this thing that night, we were gonna be in trouble.  

The Forest Service knew it too. In their own fire model for August 15, also obtained through the Freedom of Information Act, the area almost certain to burn if nothing was done was marked in red. In the middle of the bulls eye? 600 homes in Grizzly Flats. Yet that same day, the Forest Service dismissed some half dozen Cal Fire engines and crews, letting most of them go before their replacements arrived. Ingram told us that breaks every rule of firefighting.  

Bill Whitaker: The decision to release the Cal Fire firefighters early, even as this fire is growing, that just didn't make any sense to you? 

Grant Ingram: It made no sense to me. And it—it should never have happened. 

Retired fire captain Grant Ingram now owns a fire-mapping business. He showed us why he was alarmed. 

Bill Whitaker: So this is where it started and it went all the way up here to Grizzly Flat?

 Grant Ingram: Yes.

On the second day, August 15, the fire engulfed 200 acres. On August 16, 700 acres. That night, the winds in the canyon whipped the flames into a frenzy, consuming 11,000 acres.

Flames jumped from treetop to treetop, picking up speed. The Eldorado Forest was so dense with dead trees and parched underbrush, it was like a pyre just waiting for a match. 

Grant Ingram: Now everything's on fire. It's all raining down on this community. They're sitting in front of a blow torch and they can't get out of the way. 

  Lloyd Ogan talks with correspondent Bill Whitaker

Lloyd Ogan: We saw the glow coming up… 

From half a mile away, retired deputy fire chief Lloyd Ogan could see that blow torch, smell it, feel it.

Lloyd Ogan: We stood on the deck, right where you and I are standing. And you could feel this whole deck was just rumbling.

Bill Whitaker: From a fire that was a ridge over? 

Lloyd Ogan: Yeah, it was just rumbling. And that noise was literally like a freight train coming. 

We met Ogan at Leoni Meadows, a campsite south of Grizzly Flats. He told us the flames were 30 feet above the treetops that night, hissing and crackling. Ogan said he knew then the Caldor Fire was out of control. 

Lloyd Ogan: The thing I struggle with is why would any resources get released on a fire that is in a obviously high-risk location in a high-risk environment? I have not heard what I would term as an acceptable answer to that question yet. I haven't heard any answer to that question yet.

The Forest Service says its resources were stretched thin. The Dixie Fire, which would become the second largest in California history, was burning savagely nearby. But retired fire captain Grant Ingram told us there were regional crews available. And he pointed to the dispatch log that showed 12 extra fire engines being called up as the flames were tearing into Grizzly Flats. But it was too late. 

Grant Ingram: All of a sudden all these fire engines start showing up and it's like, well, where were they two days ago? Why weren't they in the neighborhood of Grizzly Flats prior to this fire even getting there?

Bill Whitaker: Why weren't they? 

Grant Ingram: I don't know. The Forest Service won't answer our questions. 

  Leoni Meadows

In all the wreckage of Caldor, Leoni Meadows stands out—an island of green in a desolate wasteland. The fire skirted the camp thanks to a massive fuel break—or buffer zone—the camp had cut. Retired deputy fire chief Lloyd Ogan pointed out where they had thinned the trees and cleared the combustible underbrush. When Caldor hit, there was little left to feed it. 

The area in Leoni Meadows where the camp cut a buffer zone

The fire slowed and changed direction. Then Ogan showed us the U.S. Forest Service land next to the camp that had not been cleared. There, everything burned. 

U.S. Forest Service land next to Leoni Meadows

Lloyd Ogan: There was no management on the Forest Service side. And that's the result.

Bill Whitaker: It's kind of mind-blowing to see all that devastation there and it gets to the property line of the camp, where the land was managed, and this all survived. It's all green. 

Lloyd Ogan: Yep.

Bill Whitaker: Could this have been replicated around Grizzly Flats? 

Lloyd Ogan: Yes. Absolutely. That's what the Trestle Project was all about, was to do exactly this. And had that been done, there's a high probability Grizzly Flats wouldn't have burned. 

Bill Whitaker: Would not have burned? 

Lloyd Ogan: Yep.

The Trestle Project was launched by the Forest Service nine years ago, when its own research warned Grizzly Flats could be incinerated if wildfire ignited the overgrown Eldorado Forest. The agency promised to clean up thousands of acres, starting with 970 acres on the town's southeast flank, where the fire would likely hit first. Almost a decade later, only a fraction of the work was done. And the Caldor Fire wiped out Grizzly Flats exactly as the Forest Service had predicted. 

Bill Whitaker: Why didn't they do this? It was part of their project.

Lloyd Ogan: That's the million-dollar question I think, is why wasn't it done? 

Residents aren't the only ones who have tried to get answers from the Forest Service. We asked repeatedly for documents, a comment, to have the taxpayer-funded service tell us what happened here. 

Last week, the Forest Service emailed us that it plans to dramatically increase the scale of forest health projects like the Trestle Project and has launched a 10-year plan, starting with communities at immediate risk.

But that's no solace for the residents of Grizzly Flats who told us any trust they had in the Forest Service has been shattered. Last year, Caldor was one of three devastating fires in the region that started on federal land and burned more than a million acres. Candance Tyler fears unless the Forest Service follows through on their promises, more towns like Grizzly Flats will go up in flames.

Bill Whitaker: The Forest Service has said they did all they could. They threw all the resources they had at the fire. You laugh? 

Candance Tyler: I laugh. Are you kidding me? Your maps say, we're gonna burn. Your models show, we're gonna burn. But you're not worried about it? Oh, you don't have the resources? That's a joke.

Produced by Heather Abbott. Associate producer, LaCrai Mitchell. Edited by Michael Mongulla.

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