60 Minutes investigates initial attack on Caldor Fire

60 Minutes, Grizzly Flats, Caldor Fire

Last year’s Caldor Fire and the community that was heavily damaged by it, Grizzly Flats, has been in the news recently. The latest is a piece aired on CBS’ 60 Minutes yesterday (see video below) about the fire southwest of Lake Tahoe, California. On August 16 Cap Radio wrote about the fuel treatment program the US Forest Service planned to conduct around the town, but barely started. Then on September 26 and 27 National Public Radio published articles about the failed project and difficulties in conducting prescribed fires.

The 13-minute piece on 60 Minutes concentrated on the initial attack of the fire, which was first reported at about 7 p.m. on August 14. One of the first challenges was gaining access, complicated by a washed out road and others that had not been maintained. According to a dispatch log the Incident Commander ordered everyone off the fire at 1:42 a.m., about seven hours after it started. The reason stated in the log was for “accountability.” 60 Minutes said the Forest Service told them it was for the safety of the firefighters. Later on day 2, according to 60 Minutes, the agency  “dismissed a half dozen CAL FIRE engines and crews, letting most of them go before their replacements arrived.”

As you can see on the map below, about 29 hours after it started the fire was mapped at 781 acres. After another 44 hours it had burned through Grizzly Flats, growing to more than 55,000 acres.

Caldor Fire map, Aug 15 & 17, 2021
Caldor Fire map, August 15 & 17, 2021.

Our take

I strongly believe in aggressive initial attack “with overwhelming force using both ground and air resources, arriving within the first 10 to 30 minutes when possible.” But it is difficult to criticize, especially a year later, an Incident Commander’s decision to pull everyone off a fire due to concerns about safety. Obviously the burning conditions were in favor of the fire that first night, not the firefighters. In 44 hours it grew from 781 to 53,465 acres while spotting more than a mile ahead according to mapping data from infrared aircraft.

If the Forest Service had completed the huge fuel treatment project they had promised around Grizzly Flats, that does not automatically mean no structures would have been destroyed in the community. Would the treatment have been a mile wide, reducing the number of burning embers landing in the town? Probably not. And it only takes one — landing in a leafy gutter, on a deck, on wooden steps, in a vent, on firewood, or dead grass near a structure and the home can be destroyed. When one home ignites, it becomes another ember generator, showering the rest of the community with ignition sources, resulting in the fire growing exponentially.

In September of 2021 Jack Cohen and Dave Strohmaier wrote about the Home Ignition Zone on Wildfire Today:

“Surprisingly, research has shown that home ignitions during extreme wildfires result from conditions local to a home. A home’s ignition vulnerabilities in relation to nearby burning materials within 100 feet principally determine home ignitions. This area of a home and its immediate surroundings is called the home ignition zone (HIZ). Typically, lofted burning embers initiate ignitions within the HIZ – to homes directly and nearby flammables leading to homes. Although an intense wildfire can loft firebrands more than one-half mile to start fires, the minuscule local conditions where the burning embers land and accumulate determine ignitions. Importantly, most home destruction during extreme wildfires occurs hours after the wildfire has ceased intense burning near the community; the residential fuels – homes, other structures, and vegetation – continue fire spread within the community.”

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.