Wildfire victims left ‘in the dark’ after U.S. Forest Service briefs Congress about the Caldor Fire
The U.S. Forest Service has briefed Congressional staff about the 2021 Caldor Fire and the agency’s stalled wildfire prevention efforts leading up to the blaze — but little information from these meetings has been shared with the public.
The Caldor Fire devastated most of Grizzly Flats, a Sierra Nevada town between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe, and grew into one of the largest wildfires in California history. It burned across Forest Service land before destroying more than 400 of the town’s roughly 600 homes.
Last year, an investigation from CapRadio and The California Newsroom found the Forest Service identified the wildfire risk in Grizzly Flats decades ago. The agency eventually developed a large forest management project to clear flammable brush and vegetation on federal land bordering the community. But the Forest Service completed only 14% of the planned work.
In November, more than a dozen California Congress members wrote a letter to the Forest Service in response to the investigation, calling the agency’s shortcomings “particularly egregious” and demanding answers.
As a result, the Forest Service held briefings for Congressional staff in December and February. But the meetings were not open to the public. The Forest Service has declined to provide recordings of the briefings or a copy of the agency’s presentation. An agency spokesperson sent CapRadio a general summary after the February briefing, which provided little new information.
Grizzly Flats residents, meanwhile, say they’re still searching for answers about the Caldor Fire and the stalled efforts to protect their town. Residents told CapRadio that neither the Forest Service nor Congressional offices informed them that the briefings had occurred.
“It just leaves us in the dark,” said Victor Diaz, who lost his home in the fire. “I hope they do end up giving us some information.”
The Diaz family — Victor, his wife Safiro, their six children and the family dog Ginger — lived in an RV for about a year after the fire, waiting for their home to be rebuilt.
Spokespeople for Sen. Alex Padilla and Rep. Zoe Lofgren — the two California Democratic Congress members leading the inquiry into the Forest Service — declined interview requests.
The Forest Service also declined an interview request.
The briefing summary provided by the Forest Service gives a general overview of the events leading up to the Caldor Fire. It explains how the agency proposed a large forest management project to protect Grizzly Flats, but struggled to complete the work. Then in 2021, California experienced extreme fire conditions, which fueled the devastating Caldor Fire. The summary also discusses the Forest Service’s response during the fire.
You can read a copy of the summary here.
The Forest Service did not address some key requests from Congress. Specifically, lawmakers asked the Forest Service to develop an inventory of California communities at risk of catastrophic wildfire and where the agency is trying to complete projects. The Forest Service did not provide this information in its summary or in response to CapRadio’s requests.
Tracking forest management projects in proximity to at-risk communities could expedite completion, allow residents to monitor progress and ultimately protect towns from future wildfires. CapRadio’s reporting found the agency currently does not have a centralized database with this information.
Mary Ann Cook and Rick Lower — a couple who lost their Grizzly Flats home in the Caldor Fire — said they felt disheartened by the lack of information coming from the Forest Service and members of Congress.
“It makes us feel like they’re just sweeping it under the carpet,” Lower said. “There’s a lot of questions that are never answered.”
Cook said the voices of fire victims have been left out of the conversation.
“When Congress met with the Forest Service, they should have reached out to pivotal people in the community,” she said.
After the fire, Lower and Cook moved to Crescent City along California’s coast. The couple had fire insurance, but they said the coverage did not provide enough money to rebuild a house that meets the stringent regulations for new homes in fire-prone areas. While the Federal Emergency Management Agency provided funding for disaster response, the agency declined to provide individual assistance for residents impacted by the Caldor Fire.
Late last year, Cook and Lower pressed the Forest Service to hold a meeting with Grizzly Flats residents to address lingering questions and concerns. The agency agreed to hold a meeting in December that would include Forest Service Chief Randy Moore, according to a calendar invitation reviewed by CapRadio. But the Forest Service canceled a few days ahead of the planned meeting, providing little explanation.
A new meeting has not been rescheduled.