Grizzly Flats has stood in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada in California since 1851. Lumber has been the economic mainstay of the region for decades. But one night last August, it took just 15 minutes for a once-in-a-lifetime part of the city to be destroyed by the Kaldor fire that roared out of the El Dorado National Forest.

The fire would burn for two months, burning more than 200,000 acres and costing $271 million to put out.

It all started with a small column of smoke about four miles south of Grizzly Flats at 7:00 pm on August 14, 2021. Because the fire was on federal land, the US Forest Service was in charge of calling out firefighters and resources. A 60 minutes of investigation found that the problems started immediately: the maps were outdated, it was difficult for firefighters to locate the fire. Resident Candence Tyler said her heart sank as she listened to the police scanner.

“They send them to Caldar Road. Well, it was washed away for three years,” Tyler told reporter Bill Whitaker. “How are you going to get the tanker there? Did you see the blur? He is huge. It would take a month of Sundays to fill that hole or build a new road.”

The forest burned by the Kaldor fire

Keeping national forests healthy, including road maintenance, is a central part of the Forest Service’s mandate. But 60 Minutes found that many roads in the Eldorado forest are impassable — blocked by fallen trees and deep ruts. When the fire broke out in Kaldora, the fire engines had to retreat, costing a two-hour delay.

Retired fire captain Grant Ingram also listened to his scanner. Ingram has fought fires for 35 years for both the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire, California’s state firefighting agency. Ingram investigated the initial spread of the fire in a local fire-prone area and told us he believes the US Forest Service management team bears most of the blame.

“Management failed to provide the team on the ground with what they needed to do to extinguish this fire in a timely manner,” Ingram told Whitaker.

“Are you outright saying it’s a failure of leadership?” Whittaker asked.

“Absolutely,” Ingram said. “They could not understand where the fire would go. They then failed to bring in enough equipment and resources to mitigate that fire. And then, they couldn’t protect the community of Grizzly Flats when they knew he was headed that way.”

Ingram said one of the most significant decisions was made in the early hours of Aug. 15, when the fire was still small. At 1:43 a.m., just hours after the fire, the Forest Service called off operations for the night.

“Will drag everyone out of line for prosecution,” said the dispatch log, a minute-by-minute account of the fire that 60 Minutes obtained through a Freedom of Information Act request. The Forest Service said it was unsafe to continue and wanted to reassess.

“When I worked in other agencies, we usually fought fires at night. It was the best time to do it,” Ingram told Whitaker.

“But the Forest Service commander was telling people to stop,” Whittaker said. “Go back, go home.”

“Right. I couldn’t believe it at first,” Ingram said. “Fighting fires is dangerous, but you don’t call 9-1-1 when you’re a firefighter. You’re like 9-1-1 there.”

The withdrawal order did not sit well with state and local firefighters, who came to the aid of the Forest Service. Some of them told 60 Minutes that they believed that night was their best chance to contain the fire. They also said they were trained to fight wildfires 24 hours a day until the fire was out. No one would go on camera for fear of losing their job, so 60 Minutes agreed to withhold the identity of this firefighter.

“So when you heard the incident commander say he was pulling out and other equipment, fire engines and bulldozers were leaving with him, what did you think?” Whitaker asked the fireman.

“What’s going on here? I mean, what the hell? We have a fire. You have to put out the fire. Everything is so simple,” said the fireman. “I think everybody on that hill that night believed that if we didn’t get ahead of this thing that night, we were going to be in trouble.”

This was also known in forestry. Their own fire model for Aug. 15, also obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, showed that the Grizzly Flats apartments in the downtown area almost certainly would burn — an 80-100 percent chance — if the fire was not extinguished. However, the Forest Service fired several half-dozen California state fire engines and crews that same day, letting most of them go until their replacements arrived. Ingram told 60 Minutes that he broke all firefighting rules.

“It didn’t make sense to me. And it – it should never have happened,” Ingram said.

On the second day, August 15, the fire covered 200 hectares. On August 16, 700 ha. That night, the wind in the canyon fanned the flames and Kaldor erupted, consuming 11,000 acres.

The flames jumped from treetop to treetop, gaining speed. The Eldorado National Forest was so thick with dead trees and dry undergrowth that it was like a campfire waiting for a match.

“Now everything is on fire. Everything falls on this community,” Ingraham said. He told Whitaker that he was sitting in front of a blowtorch.

The US Forest Service says its resources were insufficient. Nearby, the Dixie Fire, which would become the second largest in California history, burned furiously. But Ingram told 60 Minutes there are regional crews. And he pointed to a dispatch log that showed 12 additional fire engines were called as flames tore through Grizzly’s apartment. But it was too late.

“All of a sudden, all these fire trucks started showing up,” Ingram said, “and it’s like, where were they two days ago? Why weren’t they around Grizzly Flats before the fire started there? “

“The Forest Service won’t answer our questions,” Ingram continued.


A few miles south of Grizzly Flats at Leonie Meadows Campground, retired Sacramento Deputy Fire Chief Lloyd Ogan told Whittaker that flames were 30 feet above the treetops that night, hissing and crackling. Ogan said he knew Kaldor’s fire was out of control.

“I struggle with why are any resources being released on a fire that is in an obviously dangerous location in a high-risk environment? I have yet to hear what I would call an acceptable answer to this question. I haven’t heard the answer to that question yet,” Ogan said.

Among all the ruins of Kaldor, Leoni Meadows stands out – an island of greenery on a scorched, desolate wasteland. The fire bypassed the camp thanks to the massive fuel gap or buffer zone the camp had built. The fire showed where they had thinned the trees and cleared the combustible undergrowth. When Caldor struck, there was little material left to feed him. The fire slowed and changed direction.

Ogan showed 60 Minutes Forest Service land near the camp that had not been cleared. Everything burned down there.

“There was no management on the part of the Forest Service. And that’s the result,” Ogan said.

“It’s kind of mind-boggling to see all this destruction, and it’s right on the property line of the camp, where the land was managed, and it’s all there. It’s all green,” Whittaker told Ogan. “Could this be repeated around Grizzly Flats?”

“Yes. Absolutely,” Ogan said. “That’s what the Trestle project was made to do. And if that had been done, there’s a good chance Grizzly Flats wouldn’t have burned down.”

Project Trestle was launched by the Forest Service nine years ago when its own research warned that Grizzly Flats could be burned if a wildfire ignited the overgrown El Dorado forest. The agency has pledged to clear thousands of acres, starting with 970 acres on the city’s southeast flank, where the fire is likely to strike first. Almost ten years later, only a small part of the work was done. The Kaldor Fire destroyed Grizzly Flats, just as the Forest Service had predicted.

Not only residents tried to get answers from the Forest Service. 60 Minutes has made repeated requests to the federal agency for documents, comment and to demand that the taxpayer-funded service explain what happened at Grizzly Flats.

The Forest Service emailed us last week that it plans to dramatically scale up forest health projects like the Trestle Project and launched a 10-year plan, starting with communities most at risk.

The 10-year plan is no comfort to Grizzly Flats residents, who told 60 Minutes that any trust they had in the Forest Service has been broken.

“A 40-acre fire,” resident Candace Tyler said, “you can’t put it out in the canyon? And don’t get me wrong, I’ve lived here my whole life. I know it’s a steep canyon that’s treacherous, but you’re STILL telling me you don’t have the ability or the equipment to put it out? They did nothing. In our opinion, they did nothing to put out this fire.”

Last year, Kaldor was one of three devastating wildfires in the region that started on federal land and burned more than a million acres.