Oct 3, 2022
Evidence shows U.S. Forest Service mismanagement contributed to California wildfire Transcript
Grizzly Flats, California, was destroyed by fire in less than 15 minutes last year. Most residents there blame the U.S. Forest Service. Read the transcript here.
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Bill Whitaker: (00:01)
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 forest supported Sierra Nevada foothill towns for decades. Then one August night in 2021, the Caldor Fire roared out of the El Dorado National Forest, and in less than 15 minutes, Grizzly Flats was gone. Today, the community’s anger is still raw. Many residents blame the US 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 In our months long investigation, we found evidence of mismanagement by the Forest Service and critics who say it’s outdated tactics and overgrown lands have led to millions of acres and foothill towns burning needlessly.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.
Speaker 2: (01:02)
The story will continue in a moment.
Candace Tyler: (01:08)
I took a couple pictures of my house knowing that that would be the last time I ever saw it.
Bill Whitaker: (01:12)
You knew that?
Candace Tyler: (01:13)
Yeah. I mean, when you got hot embers raining down on you 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 yet, you know your fate.
Bill Whitaker: (01:26)
Candace Tyler’s world went up in flames on August 17th when the Caldor Fire tore out of the El Dorado National Forest and burned the family ranch to the ground. So where was your house?
Candace Tyler: (01:39)
So right here would’ve been our bedroom, and then over here, this would’ve been walking into our dining room.
Bill Whitaker: (01:48)
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. When it first started, did you have confidence that the Forest Service would handle it, would put it out?
Candace Tyler: (02:29)
Absolutely, a hundred percent. A 40 acre fire, you can’t put that out in the 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.
Bill Whitaker: (02:47)
Caldor started as a small plume of smoke about four miles south of Grizzly Flats. It was August 14th, 7:00 PM. This was federal land, so the US 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, Candace Tyler told us her heart sank.
Candace Tyler: (03:17)
They’re sending him down Caldor Road. Well, it’s been washed out for three years. How are you going to get a tanker down there? Have you seen the washout? It’s huge. It would take a month of Sundays to fill that hole in or cut a new road.
Bill Whitaker: (03:29)
We went to see what Tyler was talking about. Keeping national forests healthy, including maintaining roads, is a big part of the Forest Services mandate. But we found many roads in the El Dorado Forest were impassable, blocked by down trees and deep ruts. When Caldor broke out, fire engines had to backtrack, a costly two-hour delay.
Grant Ingram: (03:52)
I can’t believe that it was even happening. It was like watching a slow motion disaster.
Bill Whitaker: (03:57)
Grant Ingram also was listening to his scanner. A retired fire captain with 35 years experience, Ingram fought fires for the US 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 US Forest Service Management Team bears much of the blame.
Grant Ingram: (04:21)
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: (04:28)
You flat out say it’s a failure of leadership.
Grant Ingram: (04:31)
Absolutely. They failed to understand where the fire was going to 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.
Bill Whitaker: (04:46)
Ingram told us one of the most consequential decisions came in the early hours of August 15th when the fire was still small. At 1:43 AM, 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: (05:19)
When I worked for other agencies, we typically fought fires at night. That was the best time to do it.
Bill Whitaker: (05:24)
But yet, this Forest Service Incident Commander was ordering people to stop.
Grant Ingram: (05:30)
Bill Whitaker: (05:31)
Turn back. Go home.
Grant Ingram: (05:32)
Right. I couldn’t believe it at first. Firefighting is dangerous, but you don’t call 911 when you’re a firefighter. Right? You are there as 911.
Bill Whitaker: (05:43)
The order to pull out didn’t sit well with state and local firefighters who had 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. 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?
Speaker 5: (06:24)
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’s just that simple.
Bill Whitaker: (06:29)
Did you know that this had the potential to absolutely turn into this?
Speaker 5: (06:33)
Absolutely. 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 going to be in trouble.
Bill Whitaker: (06:41)
The Forest Service knew it, too. This is their own fire model for August 15th, also obtained through the Freedom of Information Act. The area almost certain to burn if nothing was done is marked in red. In the middle of that bullseye, 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. The decision to release the CAL FIRE firefighters early, even as this fire’s growing, that just didn’t make any sense to you?
Grant Ingram: (07:24)
It made no sense to me and it should never have happened.
Bill Whitaker: (07:27)
Retired Fire Captain Grant Ingram now owns a fire mapping business. He showed us why he was alarmed. This is where it started and it went all the way up here to Grizzly Flat.
Grant Ingram: (07:39)
Bill Whitaker: (07:41)
On the second day, August 15th, the fire engulfed 200 acres. On August 16th, 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 El Dorado Forest was so dense with dead trees and parched underbrush, it was like a pyre just waiting for a match.
Grant Ingram: (08:10)
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 Ogen: (08:18)
We saw the glow coming up
Bill Whitaker: (08:19)
From half a mile away, retired Deputy Fire Chief Lloyd Ogen, could see that blow torch, smell it, feel it.
Lloyd Ogen: (08:28)
We stood on the deck right where you and I are standing, and you could feel this whole deck was just rumbling.
Bill Whitaker: (08:33)
From a fire that was a ridge over.
Lloyd Ogen: (08:35)
Yeah, it was just rumbling and that noise was literally like a freight train coming.
Bill Whitaker: (08:40)
We met Ogen 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. Ogen said he knew then the Caldor Fire was out of control.
Lloyd Ogen: (08:57)
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.
Bill Whitaker: (09:16)
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: (09:44)
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: (09:55)
Why weren’t they?
Grant Ingram: (09:55)
I don’t know. The Forest Service won’t answer our questions.
Bill Whitaker: (09:59)
In all the records 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 Ogen pointed out where they had thinned the trees and cleared the combustible underbrush. When Caldor hit, there was little left to feed it. The fire slowed and changed direction.
Lloyd Ogen: (10:27)
Bill Whitaker: (10:27)
Then Ogen showed us the US Forest Service land next to the camp that had not been cleared. There, everything burned.
Lloyd Ogen: (10:36)
There was no management on the Forest Service side and that’s the result.
Bill Whitaker: (10:40)
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 Ogen: (10:53)
Bill Whitaker: (10:54)
Could this have been replicated around Grizzly Flats?
Lloyd Ogen: (10:57)
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: (11:09)
Would not have burned.
Lloyd Ogen: (11:10)
Bill Whitaker: (11:11)
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 El Dorado 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. Why didn’t they do this? It was part of their project.
Lloyd Ogen: (11:48)
I think that’s the million dollar question, I think, is why wasn’t it done?
Bill Whitaker: (11:53)
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. Candace Tyler fears unless the Forest Service follows through on their promises, more towns like Grizzly flats will go up in flames. The Forest Service has said they did all they could. They threw all the resources they had at the fire. You laugh.
Candace Tyler: (12:56)
I laugh. Are you kidding me? Your maps say, “We’re going to burn.” Your models show we’re going to burn. But you’re not worried about it. Oh, you don’t have the resources. That’s a joke.