Two men arrested, accused of starting Caldor Fire

The blaze burned more than 221,000 acres south of Lake Tahoe, CA

Caldor Fire
Caldor Fire, looking northeast from Armstrong lookout, August 29, 2021. AlertWildfire.

A father and son are now under arrest, accused of reckless arson in connection with the Caldor Fire that burned more than 221,000 acres south of Lake Tahoe in California.

David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32, are accused of violating section 452 of the California Penal Code, commonly referred to as “reckless arson,” which causes inhabited properties to burn and results in great bodily injury to multiple victims. This type of charge can be filed against someone who unintentionally starts a fire. Both David and Travis are being held on a $1 million bail, the district attorney’s office said. They are expected to appear in court December 10.

Most of the community of Grizzly Flats burned in the Caldor Fire and forced the entire city of South Lake Tahoe to evacuate.  CAL FIRE reported that the blaze destroyed 782 homes, 18 businesses, and 203 minor structures; another 81 structures were damaged but remained mostly intact. A map shows the status of structures in the area.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office worked  with the U.S. Forest Service, CAL FIRE, the California Department of Justice, and the Sacramento County District Attorney’s Crime Lab to investigate the cause of the fire.

Caldor Fire, final map
Caldor Fire, final map. NIFC.

Forest Service video about fuel treatments and the Caldor Fire

The fire burned 221,000 acres near South Lake Tahoe, California

10:46 a.m. PDT Oct. 21, 2021

Fuel treatments Caldor Fire
Image from USFS video about fuel treatments and the Caldor Fire.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a four-minute video featuring the Forest Supervisors of the Eldorado National Forest and the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit discussing fuel treatments that occurred in the years before the Caldor Fire burned nearly a quarter of a million acres southwest of South Lake Tahoe, California.

Examining how fuel treatments affected suppression of the Caldor Fire in California

Backfire illustration
Illustration of ignition of a backfire, from the US Forest Service video below.

The U.S. Forest Service has released a video — the second in the Forest News: California National Forests series. In this episode the agency examines how fuel treatment areas on National Forest System lands changed the intensity of the Caldor Fire and provided opportunities for community defense. The blaze burned more than 221,000 acres near South Lake Tahoe in August and September.

The video was written, directed, and narrated by Joe Flannery, the Acting Regional Fire Communications Team Lead in the Forest Service’s California region.

Crews on Caldor Fire take advantage of weather to increase containment

Mandatory evacuations lifted for South Lake Tahoe

Caldor Fire map
Caldor Fire map, east side, Sept. 6, 2021. Incident Mgt. Team.

The combination of milder weather and in some cases the fire moving into higher elevations with less fuel has allowed the 5,072 firefighters and support personnel on the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe to make increased progress in recent days. Hand crews and dozers have constructed more direct lines on the fire’s edge, stopping the spread in additional areas. The fire was mapped Sunday night at 216,358 acres, an increase of about 1,000 in the last 24 hours.

Several areas have had their mandatory evacuation orders downgraded to warnings, allowing thousands of residents to return to the city of South Lake Tahoe. El Dorado County maintains a map showing the current status of evacuations.

To see all articles about the Caldor Fire on Wildfire Today, including the most recent, click HERE.

Crews have confirmed that 714 residences and 208 other structures have burned. Officials have posted a map showing structures which have been evaluated for damage.

Caldor Fire, Sept. 6, 2021
Caldor Fire, Sept. 6, 2021

On the east side of the fire directly south of Lake Tahoe the large finger of fire east of Christmas Valley and Highway 89 that has burned more than 7,000 acres has fire line completed on the west and north sides. On the southern flank of that finger, hand crews with help from dozers are constructing direct line to keep it from moving to the south and east. They have made great progress. The perimeter of that finger is more than 20 miles, making just this section of the fire alone a huge undertaking.

A wildland fire module has been inserted into the Desolation Wilderness north of Highway 50 to help contain the northwestern corner of the East Zone. A heli-rappel module will also be inserted and additional wildland fire modules are on order for this area.

Sunday night the humidity recovery was poor, rising only into the low 20s on the slopes. On Monday the forecast calls for extremely dry air to remain over the fire area with above average temperatures and humidities in the low to mid-teens. Light winds on ridges in the morning will become westerly during the afternoon. Wednesday through Friday will bring increasing winds, 14 mph out of the west and west-southwest occasionally gusting into the low 20s, and even stronger on the weekend.

On the south side northeast of Kirkwood firefighters have made progress with dozer lines but north of Highway 88 the there is still work remaining.

Firefighters on Caldor Fire
Firefighters on the Caldor Fire, Aug. 22, 2021. CAL FIRE photo.

Firefighters work to secure the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe

Friday the wind will generally be light, but on some ridge tops will be from a different direction, east-southeast with 20 mph gusts

10:28 a.m. PDT Sept. 3, 2021

Caldor Fire strike team engines
Two strike teams of engines, including 9271C, preparing for their shift on the Caldor Fire Sept. 3, 2021. CAL FIRE Amador-El Dorado Unit photo.

The Incident Management Team reports that weather on the 212,000-acre Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe continued to moderate Thursday and Thursday night with cooler temperatures in the 70’s during the day with lighter southwest winds. Fire growth was minimal, increasing by about 2,000 acres. In an indication of what kind of fire behavior they had been facing for weeks, Thursday night the Fire Behavior Analyst called it good news that the spotting distance has decreased from one mile to a half mile.

At the head of the 8,000-acre finger of fire east of Highway 89 near Trimmer Peak south of South Lake Tahoe, hotshot crews were successful in extinguishing fire around numerous hot spots. Dozers and hand crews are putting in direct and indirect line on the south side of that finger. Crews are also putting in dozer line on the north side, in some places tying it in with power line rights of way.

To see all articles about the Caldor Fire on Wildfire Today, including the most recent, click HERE.

On the south side of the fire west of Kirkwood dozers and hand crews have completed a line around the south edge of the 800-acre slop over south of Highway 88, northwest of the ski area. They are installing a hose lay to keep it secure and to mop up.

Today, Friday, the inversion will break around 10 a.m. when fire behavior may begin to increase. Relative humidity is expected to be in the teens, and winds will generally be light except on ridges where they could be from the east-southeast with gusts to 20 mph. This major shift in the wind direction could test some constructed firelines in a way they have not been in recent days. Exceptionally dry fuel conditions exist in the fire area.

In a live briefing Thursday night Sept. 3 East Side Incident Commander Rocky Oplinger complimented the agencies for the fuel treatments that have been accomplished over the years. He said the 150-foot flame lengths dropped to about 15-feet when the fire entered the treated areas. This allowed hand crews and engines to take an aggressive approach to suppress the fire and prevent structure loss. The video of the briefing is on Facebook; Mr. Oplinger’s comments about the fuel treatments begin at 34:10.

The number of residences destroyed, 661, is an increase of 39 since Thursday; 196 other structures have also burned. Fire officials are maintaining a map that shows structures which have been evaluated for damage.


3:52 p.m. PDT Sept. 2, 20212

Caldor Fire 3-D map, northeast side, 11:13 a.m. Sept. 2, 2021
Caldor Fire 3-D map, northeast side, 11:13 a.m. Sept. 2, 2021.

The movement of the Caldor Fire has slowed in recent days as the wind decreased and as portions of the fire moved into high elevations or areas where there is more granite than vegetation.

On the northeast side of the fire east of Highway 89 dozers have been building line on the north side, the flank closest to South Lake Tahoe. Night Operations Section Chief Craig Dougherty said Thursday morning a large portion of that flank now has fireline. On Wednesday and Wednesday night four structure protection groups were working in that area mopping up and securing the edge of the fire.

The south side of that large finger of fire is active with a backing fire

The fire is still about the same distance from the shore of Lake Tahoe, about 4 miles, and it is 3 miles from the Nevada state line. The head, or the far northeast area, has spread uphill above 9,000 feet, where the sub-alpine vegetation should act to slow the movement, but spotting at times keeps it moving.

Caldor Fire map
Caldor Fire map, 11:13 a.m. Sept. 2, 2021.

Fire officials are maintaining a map that shows structures which have been evaluated for damage. To date, crews have confirmed that 622 residences and 189 other structures have been destroyed.

Wednesday evening 4,451 personnel were committed to the fire which was mapped Wednesday night at 210,000 acres.

Caldor Fire map
Caldor Fire map, northeast side, 11:13 a.m. Sept. 2, 2021.

Will the fuels reduction completed near South Lake Tahoe help protect homes from the Caldor Fire?

The Home Ignition Zone is the key

3:13 p.m. Sept. 1, 2021

Fuel treatments, Lake Tahoe Caldor Fire
Fuel treatments, Lake Tahoe area, and perimeter of the Caldor Fire Sept. 1, 2021.

For decades land managers and some residents in the Lake Tahoe area have been anticipating the Caldor Fire that has been burning since August 14. The blaze has blackened more than 204,000 acres as it rages to the northeast. It passed through the south edge of Meyers six miles south of the lakeshore and the head of the fire Wednesday morning was four miles from the lake.

Under the concept of reducing the fire threat to structures in the Lake Tahoe Basin, the US Forest Service and other organizations have been conducting hazardous fuel treatments. Since 1997, over 2,000 acres of landscape underburns and over 8,000 acres of prescribed pile burning has been completed on the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit (LTBMU), a division of the USFS that manages much of the land near the lake. In these areas, surface fuels have been reduced and smaller live trees thinned. The USFS says this “creates a zone where a damaging crown fire is less likely, which provides a safer environment for firefighters.”

The map above shows the fire on the morning of September 1 and completed hazardous fuel treatments. The green areas represent mechanical methods, such as thinning by hand or by using machines such as dozers or feller bunchers which can rapidly gather and cut a tree before felling it. Then the cut vegetation is piled. The purple areas represent locations where piles were burned. Some of the projects shown were completed in the last few years and others are older. This map shows very few areas (in yellow) that were treated with prescribed broadcast fire.

The USFS web page for the LTBMU politely says that budget restraints limit the number of acres that can be treated: “Increasing the annual number of acres treated with prescribed fire will challenge our future capacity.”

USFS engine crews on the initial attack of the Caldor Fire
USFS engine crews on the initial attack of the Caldor Fire, August 14, 2021. USFS photo.

The hope is that reducing the flammable vegetation will reduce the chances of structures being destroyed when a fire like the Caldor Fire burns into the area. Thinning trees and removing brush will not stop a fire, but in a best case scenario under benign weather and fuel conditions it might reduce the intensity of the fire and the number of firebrands landing on and near structures. If a fire does dramatically slow down when entering a treated area, it may make it possible for firefighters on the ground, perhaps aided by firefighters in the air, to stop the spread. That is, unless the wind is too strong and the vegetation moisture is historically low like we have seen this summer in California. As we wrote on August 22, under these conditions, “There is no possibility of stopping the forward spread of the fire. There is no number of 747 air tankers or firefighters on the ground that could be effective against the flaming front of this raging inferno.” This will continue to be true until something changes — some combination of cooler more humid weather, less wind, and vegetation with higher moisture content — or until it runs out of fuel at high elevations or spreads into agricultural land.

The Caldor has been lofting burning embers into the air that have landed a mile ahead of the flaming front, starting new fires, called spot fires by firefighters. When that is occurring fuel reduction projects a half mile wide around a community will not necessarily keep structures from burning. We could pave the forest paradise and put up a parking lot but if a fire a mile away can ignite residences we need other solutions.

The Home Ignition Zone (HIZ) is what home owners need to concentrate on. If it is welcoming to an ember storm, then the structure could burn no matter how much forest management is done. The HIZ must be maintained so that burning embers will not start a fire on the structure or ignite nearby vegetation which creates a fire that spreads to and ignites the building.

This is called Living With Fire. We can’t stop fires from burning, but we can stop homes from igniting when the inevitable fire occurs.

The best way to prevent homes from being destroyed in a wildfire is not clear cutting or prescribed burning a forest, it is the homeowner reducing flammable material in the HIZ. This includes spacing the crowns of trees at least 18 feet apart. The envelope of the structure itself must be fire resistant, including the roof, vents, siding, doors, windows, foundation, fences, eaves, and decks. A FEMA publication (13 MB) has excellent detailed recommendations. Headwaters Economics found that the cost of building a fire-resistant home is about the same as a standard home. When implemented, Chapter 7A of the California Building Code, regulates these features.

Here is an excerpt from an article written by Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier:

Uncontrollable extreme wildfires are inevitable; however, by reducing home ignition potential within the Home Ignition Zone we can create ignition resistant homes and communities. Thus, community wildfire risk should be defined as a home ignition problem, not a wildfire control problem. Unfortunately, protecting communities from wildfire by reducing home ignition potential runs counter to established orthodoxy.


UPDATE September 3, 2021:

In a live briefing Sept. 3 about the Caldor Fire near South Lake Tahoe, California, East Side Incident Commander Rocky Oplinger complimented the land owners and managers for the fuel treatments that have been accomplished over the years. He said the 150-foot flame lengths dropped to about 15-feet when the fire entered the treated areas. This allowed hand crews and engines to take an aggressive approach to suppress the fire and prevent structure loss. The video of the briefing is on Facebook; Mr. Oplinger’s comments about the fuel treatments begin at 34:10.