Sam Stanton, Michael McGough, and Dale Kasler
The Sacramento Bee
Aug. 17—GRIZZLY FLATS — The Caldor Fire raged through rugged forested areas of El Dorado County on Tuesday, destroying an elementary school, a church and numerous other structures and prompting thousands of rural residents to navigate a traffic jam in order to flee.
After burning fairly quietly south of Highway 50 since it began Saturday evening, the fire exploded late Monday. It tripled in size overnight, to 6,500 acres, through areas of steep terrain in the Eldorado National Forest, with zero containment.
Fire officials said the fire destroyed an unknown number of structures. Sacramento Bee journalists found the smoking ruins of buildings and cars along String Canyon Road in the Grizzly Flats area. It appeared that among the buildings destroyed in Grizzly Flats were Walt Tyler Elementary School, Grizzly Flats Community Church and the post office. The only thing left from the school was a playground structure.
Cal Fire’s Amador-El Dorado Unit said there were at least two civilian injuries from the Caldor Fire, both described as serious and requiring airlifting to hospitals. Both were transported from the Grizzly Flats area.
Evacuations were under way in communities south of 50, including Grizzly Flats, Happy Valley and the area around the popular Sly Park recreation area. Sly Park Road, the main north-south route connecting the fire zone to the highway, was jammed with bumper-to-bumper traffic as residents loaded up their vehicles with boats, kayaks and other belongings.
The California Office of Emergency Services said 2,450 people had evacuated by mid-day. Residents were ordered to evacuate in the parts of Pollock Pines, which straddles the highway and is the most populous community in the immediate area. The fire zone is about 15 miles east of Placerville.
The vegetation fire ignited Saturday evening about four miles south of Grizzly Flats, then gained new intensity late Monday. Spot fires were reported late Monday, according to the U.S. Forest Service and Cal Fire. Gov. Gavin Newsom declared a state of emergency Tuesday afternoon.
On an overlook by the side of Grizzly Flat Road, Levi Ogden and his 19-year-old son, Levi Jr., were watching as a huge smoke plume erupted from a hillside to the east.
The pair had come up from Placerville earlier Tuesday to see property Ogden owns and a house his mother had lived in for 30 years, but could not get close enough to see whether the fire had damaged them.
“My place was down that driveway this morning, two hours ago,” Ogden said, looking at photos he had taken on his phone of firefighting vehicles in his driveway. “They had the hoses out of the truck, so I’m guessing it’s probably gone if they were trying to put it out earlier.
“You can’t really compete with these fires. There’s too much to be done, especially if you get in close to the fire. There’s 40 mph winds.”
The fire’s impact was being felt throughout Northern California. It was burning “uncomfortably close” to some of SMUD’s hydro-electric facilities, SMUD board member Gregg Fishman said on Facebook. He said it was possible the fire could disrupt electricity transmission in the coming days, although probably not enough to compromise the utility’s ability to serve all its customers.
Meanwhile, Will Berndt sat atop a pop-up camper hitched to his vehicle near Grizzly Flats Tuesday afternoon, watching the smoke plumes as they drifted toward his house on a hill.
Berndt had been standing vigil since 5 a.m. Tuesday, along with his cat, Marly, a guitar, generator, bicycle and other belongings he had packed as the fire drew near.
Berndt, a 72-year-old general contractor, said his house was safe, but another he had been working on “for a long time” for a client had been destroyed.
“I live up on that ridge so our house is not affected right now, but most of our friends and neighbors, the church in Grizzly are gone. I had a big project in Grizzly, I’m a contractor, but the house blew up. It’s gone. I spent a lot of time on that house, and they haven’t paid me yet, so…”
Berndt’s wife evacuated to their daughter’s home in Placerville, but Berndt spent Monday night in a Walmart parking lot until 5 a.m., when he decided to return and make sure his house was still standing.
“That’s my life, that’s my whole life,” he said.
Berndt said he built the house himself more than 40 years ago, and he was keeping an eye on the home from Grizzly Flat Road because he was afraid if he left the area fire officials would not allow him back in.
Berndt said he watched as the fire began Saturday, and was frustrated by the fact that U.S. Forest Service helicopters did not knock the fire out when it was still small enough to tackle.
“The stupid thing started at 7 o’clock Saturday evening,” he said. “If they brought the stinking helicopters out before it got dark… They said, ‘Well, we couldn’t bring the helicopters out because it was getting dark.’
“No, it wasn’t. You had til 8:30 before it got dark, where you could have put something on it and put it out.”
Even by Sunday, he said, there was no sign of command vehicles.
“At 12 o’clock noon they finally brought the helicopters in,” he said, but by then the fire was growing. “You could see all the fires going up… So I drove through Leoni (Meadows) and it looked like it was snowing, so much ash was going through. It was snowing ashes about 9:30 or 10.”
On Sly Park Road near Pollock Pines, a line of cars fleeing the fire extended at least two miles back into the forest from Highway 50, where huge plumes of smoke could be seen rising along the ridges. Vehicles were packed with boats, kayaks, bicycles and anything else people could cram into their vehicles before they left.
Patrick Davis and his wife, Cat, were busy packing up a red Toyota pickup with several days’ changes of clothes, their 4-year-old son, Jet, and their pit bull Jordan.
The couple had dropped Jet off earlier Tuesday at Pinewood Elementary at 8:30, and shortly afterward the school called to say they were shutting down because of the fire.
“His elementary school called right after we dropped him off,” Patrick Davis said. “I guess the sheriff called the school and told them to shut it down.
“We didn’t know how bad it got overnight, because apparently it blew up overnight.”
The couple moved to their secluded forest home just under a mile from Highway 50 last Aug. 27 from Elk Grove and never before experienced a wildland fire.
“It’s okay,” Cat Davis said. “Lots of firsts this year.”
The couple said they are packing up what can’t be replaced and trying to figure out what to do about 12 chickens they’re raising, then planned to drive to Patrick’s mother’s home in Elk Grove..
“A couple days of clothes, photo albums, yearbooks, stuff that can’t be replaced,” Patrick Davis said of what he was loading into the pickup. “We were just debating, I might drive back up with crates, because we don’t have crates for the chickens. Come back and get them out of here.
“We were packing up early so we didn’t have to make a mad dash.”
Kimberly McCarthy, a Camino resident who drove to Pollock Pines to check on her restaurant, the 50 Grand, said dark smoke was billowing through the area. “It’s sort of surreal,” she said. “Everybody’s driving way too fast because they’re panicking.”
At the same time, she said the evacuations seemed to be proceeding more smoothly than the last big fire in the Pollock Pines area — the King Fire of 2014.
Cal Fire and the Forest Service said conditions were too chaotic and hazardous to do a thorough assessment of the property damage.
“The fire continues to pose a high risk to multiple populated communities,” officials wrote in an update Tuesday. “The Fire is predicted to impact Sly Park Lake and interstate travel including important evacuation routes.”
Pioneer Union School District closed its three campuses — Pioneer Elementary, Walt Tyler Elementary and Mountain Creek Middle School.
An evacuation center was set up at Diamond Springs Fire Hall, another at Cameron Park Community Center. Officials said residents could take small animals to the Diamond Springs animal shelter, while large animals were to be taken to the Amador County Fairgrounds, on Highway 49 in Plymouth, about 30 miles south of the fire zone.
About 240 personnel were assigned to the fire. “The organization is stretched due to staffing shortages and other fire incidents,” the Forest Service wrote in an incident report.
California is struggling with another difficult wildfire season, with much of the focus on the Dixie Fire in and around the Plumas National Forest; that fire is the second largest in state history.
The Sacramento Metropolitan Fire District in a tweet said Metro Fire, the Sacramento Fire Department, the Cosumnes Fire Department and Folsom Fire Department were sending an “immediate need strike team” to assist with the Caldor Fire.
The Caldor Fire ignited a few miles south of Grizzly Flats, a community of about 1,200 residents about 60 miles east of Sacramento and 10 miles south of Highway 50. Hundreds of homes, ranches and outbuildings are nestled within the largely wooded area between Placerville and Eldorado National Forest.
The southern tip of Pollock Pines is about 8 miles northwest of Grizzly Flats; several thousand people live in Pollock Pines neighborhoods south of Highway 50.
Crews braced for gusty winds to continue. The National Weather Service issued a red flag warning in place across a wide swath of interior Northern California and the Sierra Nevada foothills, in effect from 5 p.m. Tuesday to 8 p.m. Wednesday due to gusts that could reach 35 mph.
Meanwhile, PG&E Corp. warned residents of 18 counties that their electricity could be shut off Tuesday night in a “public safety power shutoff” as the hot, dry winds intensified fire danger. El Dorado County, however, wasn’t in the affected area.
Forest Service officials wrote in Tuesday’s incident report that “aggressive fire growth and runs of 3+ miles are probable” amid gusty winds, unless there is an inversion produced by the smoke.
The Bee’s Sara Nevis contributed to this story.
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