BURNED: Yearlong investigation reveals how stalled U.S. Forest Service projects expose California communities to catastrophic wildfires
S1: Climate change is making California hotter and drier at a time when we have lived through the deadliest , largest and most destructive wildfires in state history.
S2: I watched it come over the ridge. I mean , it was crowning , you know , 600 feet under the trees.
S1: But another crucial cause of these mega-fires , a lack of proper force management. Coming up this hour , an investigation into a town the U.S. Forest Service long knew could burn but fell short of completing the work to protect it before it was nearly destroyed.
S2: If all this work was done by 2020 , grizzly flats might still be there.
S1: Up and down the state , there are hundreds of towns at risk of the same fate. Later in the hour , we'll visit one of them , hoping it's not next to go up in flames.
S3: Let's keep our fingers crossed and make sure that we stay lucky.
S1: You're listening to Burned. A special investigation from the California newsroom. I'm Vicki Gonzalez with CAP Radio in Sacramento. Stay with us. This is Bert , a special investigation from the California newsroom , a collaboration of public radio stations throughout the state. I'm Vicki Gonzalez with CCAP Radio in Sacramento. The U.S. Forest Service manages 20 million acres of national forest land here in California. That's roughly a fifth of the state. A big part of its job is to keep those forests healthy and to keep nearby communities safe from wildfire. After a year long investigation , we found the U.S. Forest Service is struggling to complete the work it knows it must do to keep Californians safe. One devastating example is Grizzly Flatts , a Sierra Nevada town of 1400 people that borders the Eldorado National Forest in between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe Last year , a majority of the community was reduced to ashes by the Caldera fire. Our investigation found for two decades , the Forest Service warned that grizzly flats face serious risk of burning in a wildfire. But the agency completed only a fraction of the work it had planned. The reason why that is a big question. My cap radio colleague Scott Rod went to answer.
S4: The caldera fire sparked last year on August 14th , about two miles from Leoni Meadows. That's a Christian summer camp just south of Grizzly Flats.
S2: There's a group about 120 people here. We were up running go karts. So about ten and 30 when we finished.
S4: Eric Henton helps run the camp.
S2: I heard the call on the radio. Ran down to where the fire was. And the fire was starting to get pretty active. It was heading up the hill.
S4: Hinton took videos of the fire as it illuminated the night sky. He checked on it over and over that night. Hiking down steep trails into Forest Service land. The next morning , Leoni Meadows sent the campers home as a precaution. But Hinton's brother in law , Forrest Hasso , he remained optimistic. He also works at the camp and was previously a firefighter.
S2: We at that point , we're planning on a normal fire with kind of spots ahead of itself in , you know , spot in the meadow , and we go just put it out.
S4: But wildfires in California these days , they're not what they used to be.
S2: Set on fire. And it's worth noting that it's trying to get out of far closer. I watched it come over the ridge. I mean , it was crowning , you know , 600 feet under the trees.
S4: Hundreds of homes in grizzly flats stood in the cold or fires path and firefighters were scrambling to get.
S2: Ahead of it. 79 inches 38 could easily have grizzly flats.
S4: Two days after the fire ignited as the blaze tore across the landscape toward Grizzly Flats , Victor Diaz stepped outside of his home on the east side of town. It was dark out and something in the air just didn't feel right.
S5: It almost elevated. We just thought about , say , the trees were waving back and forth , and then there was a lot of rustling.
S2: Dogs barking , howling.
S4: Diaz's six children were asleep. He thought they would have until morning to evacuate. And then he got a call from his neighbor.
S5: He said , Victor , I just talked to the fire chief. I need to get the beep out of here.
S4: That got his attention.
S5: Yeah , I got really I got scared right there. And I told my wife , we get out of here.
S4: As Diaz hustled his kids out of bed , the official order came down to.
S2: Start the evacuation process of Grizzly Flat. Monday , 11:30 p.m.. This is Eldorado County Sheriff's Office with an emergency message.
S5: Were driving down the road. Other neighbors were starting to evacuate as well. And then I started to hear the sirens.
S2: From far away to an evacuation order. And you should leave within the next hour.
S4: As most residents fled , Eric Hinton and Forrest Hasso left Leon Meadows and drove ahead of the fire into grizzly flats to get their belongings.
S2: There was probably 30 spot fires. There's a spot fire on both sides of the road all the way down.
S4: They reached their neighborhood , ran inside their homes and started packing.
S6: Through the community of grizzly flats for structural protection.
S4: Hasso had prepared for this moment.
S2: I had my When the fire comes close it pictures first of eight documents , car titles , my mom's guitar from when she was a little girl that was there.
S4: Yet they had to leave so much behind.
S2: Once we heard the propane tanks exploding and stuff , you could tell it was getting pretty close.
S4: One of the last things Hasso heard as he left the home he would never see again was the sound of the fire itself.
S2: It's like a freight train , you know , laying on the ground next or freight train. You can't even think it.
S6: So it's just a devastating sight out here in several parts of grizzly flats. Now , fears he burned out trucks and cars and left chimneys standing alone and skeletal chairs in a gutted church.
S4: News outlets from across. Across the state and around the country descended on grizzly flats. The fire destroyed more than 400 homes. About two thirds of the town's apocalyptic.
S6: Right now , we are hearing grizzly flats. We're off of Evergreen.
S4: Eventually , the camera crews packed up their gear and headed off to the next wildfire. But I couldn't let this story go over the last year. I returned to Grizzly Flats half a dozen times. I interviewed residents and wildfire experts and pored over government databases with my colleagues. I wanted to understand what happened here before the caldera fire. I wanted to learn what the Forest Service did and didn't do to protect this town. And I wanted to figure out if the devastation in Grizzly Flats was preventable.
S2: If I keep my steps in for a day.
S4: On a cold afternoon back in January. Eric Hinton and Forest Hasso lead me to the top of a creaky metal fire tower at Leoni Meadows. We throw open the hatch. Climb onto the platform and take a moment to catch our breath. Like we've never exercised. I know the view is stunning for all the wrong reasons. Trees like blackened skeletons cast long shadows across the barren forest floor. The burn scar stretches to grizzly flats , where just about everything on the east side of town is gone. The main gathering places the school , the post office , the community church all turned to ash. And then there's this house in the middle of the devastation. It's Robin's egg blue and looks untouched like the calendar fires. Flames just skirted past. It's even surrounded by a cluster of green trees.
S7: It's kind of lonely around here now. It's kind of strange. Yeah.
S4: Yeah. 60 year old Mark Almer lives here. He stands in his garage , gazing at the hollowed out neighborhood. Almer spent more than a decade trying to protect his neighborhood and the entire town from wildfire , starting with fireproofing his own home.
S2: Let's if you're Mike , we walk around. Can you point out a couple of things that you guys did retrofit ? Yes.
S4: He shows me the home's hardened exterior.
S7: Concrete siding and tempered windows and all that.
S4: And the special attic and basement vents.
S7: If they have any sort of ember or flame contact to them , the the honeycomb mesh will swell close.
S4: And the fire resistant decking.
S7: It's probably three times the cost of a standard redwood deck. But I think ultimately that's what saved us.
S4: If you can't already tell. Almer is a planner and a doer. He's a retired fire inspector. Early in his career , his doer mentality earned him a nickname.
S2: The Bulldog.
S4: The Bulldog , the kind of person colleagues turned to when they had a problem to solve.
S7: Once they got a hold of it. I wouldn't let go of it until the problem was fixed. Well , one of the captains called me Bulldog once , and eventually everyone in the entire department started calling me that.
S4: Years into retirement , he still has that tenacity. Just one example. Almer was determined to figure out who fed the fish in his pond after he evacuated during the Kelder Fire. He spent hours and hours reviewing security camera footage.
S7: It's that bulldog factor. I started going through the photos again , kept on blowing them up and blowing them up.
S4: He added the mystery fish feeder as an emergency responder and then tracked him down , all just to say thanks. But where the bulldog has really lived up to his name in recent years , tirelessly working to protect grizzly flats from wildfire.
S7: We love the beauty here and we love the people. It's just a great place to live.
S4: To understand Alma's commitment to protecting the town from wildfire and to understand the true tragedy of grizzly flats , we have to go back to a community meeting organized by the Forest Service. 20 years ago.
S6: I do actually remember that meeting. Yes , I remember meeting in the church.
S4: Kathy Hardy worked as a district ranger with the Forest Service back then. She's now retired. Hardy and others from the agency gathered residents at the only church in town and offered a dire warning. Grizzly flats could be wiped off the map by wildfire.
S6: It was important for us to start talking to people and make sure that they had the information that we had about the risk of living in a beautiful forest.
S7: I remember being invited to this meeting and sitting watching this fire modeling. It was very sobering.
S4: Ulmer recalls Forest Service officials flipping through PowerPoint slides , slides that detailed how grizzly flats could burn. And one scenario stands out to him all these years later.
S7: They showed a fire that could start down at the bottom of the middle fork of the chasm , this river canyon , not unlike what happened in the caldera fire , and that it could potentially wipe out our community within 24 hours.
S4: In other words , the Forest Service predicted with chilling accuracy what would happen in the Calder Fire again. This was two decades ago. And here in our story is where the people of grizzly flats take one path , wasting no time after the community meeting , getting organized and taking action , and the Forest Service takes another path , spinning its wheels for years , trying to find a plan to protect the town.
S1: Coming up.
S2: If all this work was done by 2020 , grizzly flats might still be there. They left that part of the town on the southwest side of the community , above a deep river canyon. I mean , that is by far the most risky part of that whole landscape.
S3: It could have meant survival. I think there would have been a very high probability that Grizzly Flat would not have burned in the Keller fire.
S1: This is burned. A special investigation from the California newsroom , a collaboration of public radio stations throughout the state. I'm Vicki Gonzalez with CAP Radio in Sacramento. You just heard from my colleague Scott Rod about the caldera fire , which sparked last August in the Sierra Nevada foothills between Sacramento and Lake Tahoe. A wildfire that leveled the town of Grizzly Flats. Scott and his colleagues spent a year uncovering how the Forest Service knew about the risk of wildfire to grizzly flats. How the agency warned the community decades ago. But the Forest Service still fell short in its efforts to protect the town. Scott Rod picks up the story from here.
S4: After the Forest Service gathered , residents in the community church about 20 years ago and warned that wildfire could destroy grizzly flats. Mark Almer and his neighbors got to work.
S7: Shortly after that. We formed a fire to council.
S4: The Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council , a group of two dozen volunteers determined to defend the town. They published a newsletter. They put up information on the post office bulletin board.
S7: Our post office was the meeting point in this community.
S4: The council scaled up its efforts from there. Led by Mark Elmer , the Bulldog. They plan to remove overgrown brush from more than a thousand acres in grizzly flats. The work would create a buffer around the community and clear the sides of roads so people could safely evacuate in a wildfire. This work wouldn't be easy and it wouldn't be cheap. We're talking a few million dollars for a community of modest means and fixed incomes. So the Fire Safe Council raised money however it could. They held annual barbecues.
S7: We'd have 250 people and we would sell out most every year.
S4: Area residents hosted wine tastings in the group , applied for grants , lots and lots of grants.
S7: It was a lot of work for everyone involved to write these grants.
S4: And it paid off. They cleared brush throughout the town and improved evacuation routes. But as the fire safe Council hustled , the Forest Service idled. The agency did tackle some smaller projects , But a lot of that work was miles away from grizzly flats. Most of the federal land near the town's border , thousands of acres remained dense and overgrown , primed for a catastrophic wildfire. The agency's plan to manage the forest around grizzly flats was still years away. Before we go any further , though , it's important to know what we're talking about when we say forest management.
S6: Really , it just means manipulating the forest for an outcome. The goal is to make the forest resilient.
S4: That's Susie Kolker. She's with the University of California's Cooperative Extension in the central Sierra Nevada. She says forest management has been happening for thousands of years. For example , Native American communities intentionally set fires for hunting and cultural purposes , which also prevented forests from getting too congested. But over the last century , agencies like the Forest Service have focused mostly on putting fires out. That's led to a buildup of brush and vegetation that can easily ignite.
S6: So that's led to a huge increase in high severity fires.
S4: Coker says forest management today is about selectively removing trees and vegetation to improve forest health and make wildfires less severe. And there are a bunch of ways to do that.
S6: If it's a smaller forest , it can be done with hand tools or chainsaws.
S4: Foresters can also use heavy equipment like something called a mass Decatur.
S6: It's a machine with a mowing head that can come down on trees or shrubs and just grind them up.
S4: Sometimes trees are cut down and sold for timber. A process called commercial thinning. And then there's prescribed burning. When you set a controlled fire to burn the understory of a forest , it's a practice similar to the fires set by indigenous communities.
S6: Prescribed fire is a really important tool. A burn plan is written and then you have a prescription for what ? Weather conditions and fuel conditions you're willing to light that fire in.
S4: Coker says forest management projects often require a combination of techniques.
S6: You might need three different methods of treatment , and then that force would be more resilient for the.
S4: Future , a more resilient forest. That's what the Forest Service wanted to accomplish around grizzly flats. But first they needed a plan and someone with a vision.
S3: My name is Duane Nelson. I'm retired from the Forest Service. As of January 2017. Prior to that , I had spent almost ten full years as the district Ranger of the Placerville Ranger District.
S4: Nelson didn't like what he saw when he took over the district. It was overgrown. It was dangerous. So he came up with a goal.
S3: And we called it a big , big , hairy , audacious goal.
S4: He wanted to manage the forest across his district in a big part of his vision aimed to protect grizzly flats from wildfire In 2013 , about a decade after that initial meeting in the church , the Forest Service announced plans for 15,000 acres of commercial tree thinning brush removal and lots of prescribed burning. They called it the trestle project , and Nelson was a key architect.
S3: I was really pretty passionate about wanting to have fire back on the landscape.
S4: The trestle project would complement the efforts of the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council. It was supposed to tackle much needed work on the south side of town. That south side was the most fire prone part of the community. The agency originally said it would complete the trestle project by 2020 , but most of it was ultimately left unfinished based on months of reporting. It's clear there wasn't one big reason the TRESTLE project languished. It was a whole bunch of things , Nelson says. The project hit pushback almost immediately.
S3: There , of course , were issues that were brought forward about spotted owls.
S4: The California Spotted Owl. The Forest Service recognizes it as a sensitive species. Environmental groups also objected to cutting down larger trees.
S3: And , you know , we have to listen to those things very closely and incorporate their concerns into the design of a project.
S4: Responding to these comments and objections took a long time. The Forest Service put out over a thousand pages of environmental reviews , alternate maps and reports by specialists. By the time the agency actually approved the project , it was years behind schedule. Scott Rogers took over as District Ranger after Nelson retired in 2017.
S2: The stress of our workforce is really challenging.
S4: He says the crews that respond to extreme wildfires are also the ones largely responsible for completing forest management work and fighting fires now takes up most of their time. Climate change also got in the way of completing the trestle project. Hotter , drier conditions make it harder to set prescribed burns safely.
S2: Before , we might have had 4 to 5 months worth of inappropriate windows. Now we're closer to a few weeks to a few months.
S4: Rogers says they had a prescribed burn planned near Grizzly Flats before the Kelder fire , but.
S2: We had to cancel because conditions just weren't quite right.
S4: We also spoke to Chief Randy Moore , who leads the Forest Service. Before that , he was the agency's top official in California. He says the biggest hurdle to completing efforts like the trestle project is money.
S2: You know , this can't make any bones about this. We do not have to do the level of work that needs to be done out there in. The sad thing is that there are a number of communities that are at risk.
S4: Moore says he's hopeful that billions of dollars recently approved by Congress will help solve the budget problem moving forward. But hope can't change the past. When it came to the TRESTLE project , the Eldorado National Forest had only secured a third of the funding needed to get the project done. Based on our analysis of Forest Service data , the agency completed just 14% of the trestle project before the Kelder Fire ignited. Figuring this out , it wasn't easy for our data team.
S6: This took months of talking to the Forest Service to figure out what was in the data. It was not super transparent.
S2: We started off with their publicly facing data and realized that it was not going to present us with an accurate figure.
S4: That's Emily Zentner and George Levine's , the two data reporters on our team. They labored over the Forest Service's public data sets , which are supposed to track forest management work. Early on , our team found the way the agency records its work can be misleading. For example , if they remove brush on one acre of forest and then cut down trees on the same acre , it gets reported as two acres of work.
S2: This practice of double and triple counting overlapping treatments has been criticized over and over again over the years.
S4: On top of that , someone at the Forest Service marked areas of the trestle project as complete when the work hadn't been done.
S2: They came back basically telling us that the data had errors in it. Their own publicly facing data and they gave us some corrected data.
S4: Only then did we get a clear picture of just how little work the Forest Service completed on the trestle project. Again , 14%. And most of that work was commercial tree removal. My colleague Emily then put that data , the correct data on a map. It showed where the Forest Service plan to do work under the project , the few areas where it actually got stuff done , and then how the fire burned.
S6: There would have been a wall of treated forest between the start of the. Outdoor fire and grizzly flats. It's just incredible to see the way that the fire moved directly through that area that was supposed to be treated.
S4: I shared this map and our data findings with Michael Warra , a climate policy expert at Stanford University.
S2: It's really sad to see this. It's sad to think about what could have happened if all this work was done by 2020. Grizzly flats might still be there.
S4: Warra was especially troubled that the Forest Service prioritized commercial tree removal and basically ignored prescribed burning. And he isn't the only expert critical of the Forest Service.
S2: The agency is full of really , really hardworking and well-intentioned people , but their ability to pull off things is so limited.
S4: Hugh Safford was a senior ecologist with the Forest Service for over two decades before retiring last year. He said the danger was clear in Grizzly flats , especially on the south side of town. The Trussell project called for first priority prescribed burning to protect that part of the community , but the work didn't get done.
S2: They left that part of the town unguarded. The southwest side of the community fit above a deep river canyon. I mean , that is by far the most risky part of that whole landscape.
S4: After hearing from wildfire experts , I wanted to know if Forest Service Chief Randy Moore thought his agency did enough to protect grizzly flats. After all , he was the top official in California leading up to the Kelder Fire. And the danger in that part of the Sierra Nevada was well known. So I put the question to him in our interview. Does the Forest Service bear.
S2: Any responsibility for the outcome in grizzly flats ? Well , I mean , I don't know what kind of question that is. I mean , you know , do anybody bear any responsibility for not having a budget to do the work that we need to do out there to treat these conditions that we see on the ground ? You know , it's it's it's easy to point a finger at one entity.
S4: I pressed the issue again if this trestle.
S2: Project had gotten done. Would grizzly Flats look different today ? I don't know. I have to ask the reason for that. I , you know , I , I , you know , I'm saying project treated a scale is more effective than projects treated on a smaller scale. So it really depends on how that fire is going across the landscape and where those treatments are strategically placed on the landscape not too far down.
S4: I took those same questions to retired District Ranger Dwayne Nelson , a key architect of the TRESTLE project. He didn't mince words.
S3: It could have meant survival. I think there would have been a very high probability that Grizzly Flat would not have burned in the Keller fire.
S4: Nelson watched the fire burn from his home in Colorado , where he moved after retiring.
S3: I called up a friend of mine , Mark Homer , who is with Fire Safety Council. And all I could say to him before I started crying was. Mark , I'm so sorry.
S4: I asked Nelson how he felt about what happened in Grizzly Flats.
S3: I know that we had done a lot , but it hadn't been enough. That what we had set out to do under the trestle project wasn't complete.
S4: When I went back to Grizzly Flats a few months ago , I wanted to get Mark Allman's take on all of this. He witnessed the whole thing unfold. The Forest Service is warning two decades ago the plans and delays and unfinished work and ultimately the town's devastation.
S7: In my mind , they had good intentions , he says.
S4: Grizzly flats in the Forest Service. Their neighbors and neighbors take care of each other.
S7: The only frustrating part is how slow government works. They had a plan in place and they just hadn't completed in.
S4: Ulmer believes the town of Grizzly Flats will bounce back. People are starting to rebuild. Though he acknowledges his community will look different , certainly for the rest of his.
S7: Lifetime , you can kind of see where the fresh look of the fencing is.
S4: As we walk around his property , Ulmer points out the new wooden fence that replaced the burned one and the rebuilt storage unit that holds firewood. That's when I notice his fire resilient deck. While it didn't ignite in the Calder fire. The deck is still covered in burn marks left by falling embers. So I ask him , for a guy who's such a planner , such a doer , such a bulldog.
S1: If you're just joining us , you're listening to Burned , a special investigation from the California newsroom. Scott , what an incredible story. Looking back , how does Mark O'Mara view all of that work he did with the fire safe council , all of that effort ? Considering most of the town is gone.
S4: The devil's. Station in grizzly flats cannot be overstated. More than 400 homes were destroyed and many people are still displaced. But Mark Olmert sees the efforts of the Fire Safe Council as a success because everyone survived. Everyone got out. And while fire experts I talked to , they praised Grizzly Flats for its years of planning. Michael Warra , the climate policy expert from Stanford , recently made a trip to Grizzly flats , and he marveled at the work that residents accomplished.
S2: I was driving those roads and say , How did no one get killed in this fire ? Explosive growth so rapid. How is it that everyone got out ? And the answer is the community invested.
S1: And Scott , there are so many communities at risk.
S4: If you're in a small town that doesn't have one yet , chances are your county does. And you can check with them to start a local fire safe council and individual homeowners can do a lot on their own property. We heard this from Mark Armour. He made fire resistant upgrades to his house , cleared his yard of flammable brush in his home , survived the outdoor fire.
S1: So , Scott , more than a year later.
S4: The old post office is still a pile of debris. The trees , the ones that are still standing , are almost all scorched black from top to bottom. Some areas have been clear cut. They look something like a moonscape. But there are signs that the community is starting to rebound. Leoni Meadows , the nearby Christian camp , it reopened this summer after lots of uncertainty and rebuilding. And there are some wooden frames popping up around grizzly flats where homes once stood. Mark's neighbor , Victor Diaz , the one we met earlier who evacuated with his wife and six kids , they're rebuilding. Since December , they've been living in an RV. The kids are homeschooling. Victor is working remotely. But Victor says on his toughest days , he steps outside and watches his new home come to life.
S5: I mean , gives me hope. Every single time I look at him.
S2: It's like just so.
S5: Grateful to God that I have somewhere to live that I'm able to see it because it really seemed impossible.
S4: It's worth noting over a century ago , a fire destroyed most of grizzly flats when it was still a mining community. In the town recovered back then. But it took a long time. Victor and Marc and others in Grizzly Flats believe the community will bounce back this time , too. But they know it's going to take the right blend of patience and perseverance.
S1: Coming up , a Southern California mountain town facing the same dilemma grizzly Flats faced 20 years ago , but hoping for a different fate.
S2: Budget and boots on the ground. It's been a big issue. Know how a lot of aircraft burn in there ? And that's been the problem.
S6: I've seen too many just horror stories of people being stuck , trying to evacuate , waiting too long to evacuate. And I just didn't want to make the news that way.
S3: We've been very lucky. Let's keep our fingers crossed and make sure that we stay lucky.
S1: This is burned. A California newsroom special investigation. I'm Vicki Gonzales with Camp Radio in Sacramento. You just heard how the U.S. Forest Service warned the Sierra Nevada town of Grizzly Flats about its extreme wildfire risk and how the agency's plan to protect the town languished for years. Last August , the caldera fire ravaged Grizzly Flats. As our team learned more about the U.S. Forest Service shortcomings. We wanted to look at other communities facing similar wildfire risks. One of those is Big Bear , California , in the San Bernardino National Forest , about 2 hours east of Los Angeles. It has 25,000 year round residents and a lot more visitors like much of California. Big Bear is primed for wildfire. Earlier in September , residents there had to evacuate because of the Radford fire. The near-miss happened a few months after Casey. RW Caley Wells traveled to Big Bear to try to understand why the Forest Service can't complete the prescribed burns that are so desperately needed. Here's Kaylee.
S8: It was supposed to be a prescribed burn day here in the San Bernardino National Forest. That's when the Forest Service strategically sets controlled fires to safely reduce fire fuels. The person in charge of setting them around Big Bear is Christina Barba. But today , she's not burning anything. The low humidity and Santa Ana winds , even though they're light , made it too risky for her limited team.
S6: Well , today would have been a good burn. My concern was that in the very dry air and then also having a weak Santa Ana event that the resources would get taken away. Now we have a prescribed burning that we can't really mop up.
S8: Barbas official title is a mouthful. She's the Mountaintop Ranger District fuels planner with the San Bernardino National Forest in Forest Service Speak. She's a burn boss , the one who starts and manages prescribed fires up and down the state. Burn bosses and other officials are faced with the same dilemma. Worsening wildfires mean it's more important to make forests and communities more resilient. But that takes time. Funding people and equipment that burn bosses like Barba don't have.
S6: And therein lies the paradox of being a burn boss. It's like you want to burn enough that it is meaningful and you're improving large parts of the landscape.
S8: It's quiet and cool and relies on Southern Californians who want to escape crowded , smoggy L.A. and nearby regions like the Inland Empire. The Forest Service has approved just under 9000 acres of forest thinning and prescribed burns here. But progress has been painfully slow. Barber says she should be burning 3000 acres a year to keep up with the growing wildfire threat. Last year , she only burned 300. And this year she's been able to burn just 20. She drives a white Forest Service pickup truck along unmarked dirt roads to the top of a ridge. To me , this whole looks like a thriving patch of shrubs with old dead tree trunks from a recent burn. But the wildfire that burned this hillside happened 15 years ago. Barbara sees an example of what could happen if she doesn't get her job done.
S6: I mean , in my mind , like it's probably never going to be a forest again.
S8: No more forest means no more habitat for local owls , less shade. That makes Big Bear a cool respite for southern Californians and fewer trees to extract carbon from the warming air. As California faces another year of historic drought , the stakes of her work have never been higher , and the obstacles to getting it done are growing. Let's start with the biggest one. Climate change.
S6: Yeah , it's going to get hotter , but it also gets drier.
S8: And as it does , the window of opportunity shrinks because hotter and drier means it's easier for a prescribed burn to get out of control. Barbara had only 13 safe burn days last year , but most of those days she still couldn't set a fire. Which brings us to our next problem air quality.
S6: We share an air basin with Los Angeles and the entire Inland Empire. So because the Inland Empire has ozone , or some days they have more particulates and they should , it shuts down burning in the entire basin.
S8: The air might be clear up in Big Bear , but Barbara says she lost five of her 13 burn days because of air pollution.
S6: That's like 40% of your birthdays. Yeah , it's , you know , we're doing the best we can.
S8: Which brings us to another obstacle. Resources. Some days she doesn't have the people or equipment to burn safely. She lost three of her eight remaining safe burn days because she didn't have enough personnel.
S6: There's been times where I've woken up in the morning. I had my organization and then I get a call from the. Fire management official like , oh , you know , three of your engines got sent on a strike team for a fire and then that is the end of that.
S8: So in the end , she only had five burn days last year. And even on a perfect day when the weather is right and the air is clear and the firefighters have nothing else to do. Prescribed fires still burn up money. Barbara estimates it costs roughly $200 per acre burned. And getting that money has been tough.
S2: Particularly in Southern California or any area where you've got a community involved. The prescribed burning cost more.
S8: That's U.S. Forest Service Chief Randy Moore.
S2: If you look at it on a three , four basis , it costs more to protect areas in those Whataburger interfaces than it does from other locations.
S8: The San Bernardino National Forest did not disclose what's known as their fuels budget after months and multiple requests. Barbeau wouldn't give us a number either , though , she hinted.
S6: I think my house is worth more than the budget this year.
S8: So Chief Moore acknowledges the status quo in Southern California's forests just isn't working.
S2: Budget and boots on the ground has been a big issue. We don't have a lot of prescribed burn in there , particularly down in Southern California. We never have. And that's been the problem.
S8: None of this is news to David Kelly , who recently retired from his job as the division chief of Mountain Top Ranger District where Barbara works.
S7: There are still plans out there to be done and is stalled due to lack of funds , lack of people on the Forest Service side because of downsizing. And that's just the way it goes.
S8: He's referring to the big project that's just south of Big Bear. It was proposed about a decade ago and then canceled. It's not the only project that fell through in recent years. There was also a 13,000 acre project on the north border of Big Bear that was proposed in 2009 and then stalled out. The Forest Service is trying again to get sign off on both of those. Kelly says this pattern of projects getting approved , some even getting started and then the money running out before it's finished. He remembers it well.
S7: It's the way the Forest Service has habitually worked as we do a bunch of work , and then we pat ourselves on the back and then we don't do anything until it's too late. We have to do it all over again.
S8: But it's not just the lack of resources or the starts and stops. The agency also faces pushback from environmental. Groups.
S8: For the local chapter of the Sierra Club. The concern is protecting the U2 famous pair of bald eagles who nest each year by the lake for the John Muir Project. It's a problem with the broader strategy. For example , the Forest Service says before it can do prescribed burns safely in the north Big Bird project , it will need to remove some of the trees. Fire ecologist Chad Hansen , who co-founded the John Muir Project , lives in Big Bear Valley.
S2: Money that could be spent on home hardening and defensible space. Things that are proven to save homes and lives instead is , you know , they're proposing to spend on backcountry logging. And so they're diverting scarce resources away from true home protection. We intend to do everything we can to stop it.
S8: Hansen opposes cutting trees down and burning far from communities. He's not opposed to all prescribed burning. He says projects close to homes makes sense to give firefighters a bigger buffer zone when a wildfire does come through. The project he's currently challenging includes forests that are miles away from houses.
S2: So we will file our objection and we'll have a conversation with them to see if we can reach an agreement. If not , then we'll consider legal action.
S8: Between climate and smog , staffing and money. The threat of lawsuits. Burn boss Christina Barba says there's a saying in her line of work.
S6: You could always find a reason not to burn. And sorry , there's my cynicism again. I don't know.
S8: Later , she told me that without any management , she expects the majority of the rest of the forest in her district will be lost to wildfire. Big Bear Lakes Mayor Rick Herrick says for the most part , residents are on board with prescribed burns. But.
S2: Boy , it seems like it just takes an awful long time. And I couldn't tell you how long it takes. But but we're going back years and years and saying we have to we have to thin the forest.
S8: The thousands of people living around Big Bear like know that climate change is a growing danger for them. They face a daily visual reminder. This year , people walked several hundred feet past the edges of docks and beached boats just to dip their toes in the water. Add to all that the thousands of visitors who come up for holidays like Labor Day.
S2: We only have three routes in and out , and it seems like every time we have a big fire , at least one of the routes goes down.
S2: We're going to have to be very vigilant when that if we have a fire during this period of time. Fingers crossed. You've been very lucky. Let's let's keep our fingers crossed.
S3: And make sure that we stay lucky.
S8: They were lucky this September. Lucky that the Bradford fire didn't spark near the vacation town until Labor Day afternoon. I spoke to resident Patrice Duncan as she was evacuating.
S6: The town was really packed this weekend. It was quite robust and it could have been a real mess if there were trying to evacuate visitors as well.
S8: They were lucky there was a steady stream of planes and helicopters fighting the fire , even though resources were stretched thin after fire sparked around the state during the heat wave.
S6: The big air tankers were making runs and going between them. The other fire in Riverside.
S8: They were lucky that employees of the ski resort were up before dawn fighting the fire when local firefighters were busy on other fronts.
S6: By using the snow guns , they were able to actually save the structures and keep the fire from coming up over the ridge.
S8: And they were lucky that remnants of Tropical Storm Kay brought some much needed rain because it got dicey. The Radford fire shut down one of the main highways. One of the few gas stations ran out of gas before residents could evacuate. And the San Bernardino National Forest Fire Information line , please.
S6: Enter your pin , followed by pound.
S8: Was its own technical snafu.
S6: Sorry , the information you provided is incorrect. Please try. Again.
S8: Again. Duncan called me from the car. She said she hadn't wasted any time getting out. She just grabbed a few family heirlooms and a week's worth of clothes.
S6: I've seen too many just horror stories of people being stuck , trying to evacuate , waiting too long to evacuate. And I just didn't want to make the news that way.
S8: Duncan says she did what she could to help her unprepared neighbors.
S6: Oh , where's the fire ? I didn't have a car. What am I going to do ? You know , you live in a national forest and this is one of the things you need to be prepared to be able to deal with.
S8: For now , Mayor Herrick says he feels thankful for Big Bear's continuing luck for the firefighters who protected the town. And for times when nature does the work that the Forest Service fails to finish.
S2: You know , whenever we have a fire here and it's we can keep it , you know , so we don't destroy the town. When you look back and say , well , that's a good thing and you burn everything out like that , it's a huge , huge difference.
S8: But there's no guarantee for a happy ending next time. The threat from the Radford Fire may be gone and life there has returned to normal , but there are still thousands of acres in Big Bear Valley ripe for the next wildfire.
S1: If you're just joining us , you're listening to Burned , a special investigation from the California newsroom. Now that you've heard Kaylee's report about the forest services , very slow moving effort to protect the Southern California town of Big Bear from wildfire. And from Scott Rod about the unfinished Forest Service project that left Grizzly Flatts tragically exposed to the 2021 calendar fire in Northern California. Let's take a few minutes to talk about solutions.
S8: There's no silver bullet that's going to solve the problem. The Forest Service says they're doing everything they can with what they have. So they think the answer is more money and more people so they can do more. And there's reason to be optimistic that they'll be able to do that. There's more federal and state money for fire mitigation work , especially the recently passed several billion dollar federal infrastructure bill that's showing that our leaders are taking this more seriously than they ever have. But wildfires are still going to happen. And the biggest problem with fire that we want to address is preventing loss of life and loss of infrastructure. So to do that , you need the community to take the threat seriously. I mean , with the Radford Fire , we saw residents who just were not prepared. And Patrice Duncan , who you just heard from , is only just starting to revive this fire safe council of volunteers that are tasked with getting their neighbors to harden their homes so that when it does come , hopefully the damage won't be too bad.
S1: In getting to that fire safe council. That model is a large part of the success story in Grizzly Flats.
S4: One thing that I hear over and over is the need for partnerships first of councils , local , state , federal governments , nonprofits , all sitting at the same table to get this work done. An example is Lake Tahoe. After the Angora fire in 2007 destroyed hundreds of homes. It was a wake up call in the region , saw tremendous collaboration in the coming years , tackling tens of thousands of acres of forest management work. That work has been credited with keeping the caldera fire last year from devastating Tahoe neighborhoods. But there are some challenges here getting everyone on the same page. It isn't easy and there needs to be the political will and sometimes political arm twisting in these efforts cost a lot of money. The work in Tahoe had a price tag of more than $150 million. Most rural communities don't have that kind of cash. Just laying around.
S1: $150 million is a lot of money. And Carly , it also sounds like there's also an issue of data and accountability on the Forest Service side.
S8: Yes , you're right. There is. And it would be helpful to have a better sense of what parts of the forest are in need of more treatment or attention. We actually ran into some issues getting the data that we needed for this story because of disorganized recordkeeping , a lack of staff , people having to fill in in roles that they're not used to. So knowing what has been planned and what needs to happen so that the public can actually be aware of how big a risk they're facing. All of that is going to be really essential to actually making any progress.
S1: And , Kayleigh , you talked about how these projects often stall or Peter out completely.
S8: So as you heard , Chad Hansen and the John Muir Project have objected to that plan. And we've been waiting for months to see what the Forest Service is going to do. So they could either alter the plan or they could face a possible lawsuit from the John Muir Project. So the ball is in the Forest Services court. Now. Hansen has said that they've reached agreements on projects like these in the past. But Christina Barba , the Burn boss , said she can't comment on it right now because they're in the middle of what she called a contentious objection period. So we'll just have to see what happens there.
S4: But critics of the Forest Service say this is just a start. And the Forest Service itself acknowledges that it needs to continue building its ranks to make sure that it has the people to do these projects and rebalance its priorities to focus more on forest management.
S4: Here's Susie Coker again. The forest. I spoke to from the University of California's Cooperative Extension.
S6: In general , there is no future in California forests without fire in one form or another. So a prescribed fire may have some risks , but it's less risky overall than a wildfire.
S4: Essentially , she's saying waiting for Mother Nature to burn through overgrown forests. That's a much bigger gamble than setting a controlled prescribed fire.
S1: Thank you to my CAP radio colleague Scott Rodd and to Kelly Wells from Casey. RW This special investigation was also reported by George Lovins and Emily Zentner. Adrian Hill and Mike Kessler edited. Our special was produced by Kap Radio in Sacramento in partnership with the California NEWSROOM , a collaboration of the state's public radio stations. Thanks to our director Nick Dobias and Marc Jones for engineering. And to Ben Adler , Sonia Guice , Erika Mahoney , Nick Miller , Molly Peterson and Molly Solomon. I'm Vicki Gonzalez.
Wildfires in California have grown increasingly extreme and devastating in the last decade.
BURNED, a yearlong investigation from the California Newsroom, reveals how the U.S. Forest Service is struggling to complete the work it knows it must do to keep Californians safe from wildfires. For decades, the agency has developed projects to thin and manage overgrown forests in an effort to reduce wildfire intensity. But those plans routinely stall out, and sometimes are abandoned completely.
The 2021 Caldor Fire destroyed most of Grizzly Flats, a foothills community in Northern California that borders Forest Service land.
CapRadio’s Scott Rodd investigated how the Forest Service took years to develop a large forest management project around Grizzly Flats, and only finished a small portion by the time the Caldor Fire ignited in 2021. The agency originally committed to finishing the 15,000-acre project by 2020.
Towns up and down California fear they could be next.
KCRW’s Caleigh Wells uncovered how the Forest Service tackles only a fraction of the prescribed burning work it needs to get done to protect communities in Southern California. The agency delayed or canceled multiple projects around Big Bear Lake, a popular tourist town surrounded by the San Bernardino National Forest. The town narrowly avoided disaster this year when the Radford Fire ignited.
CapRadio’s Scott Rodd and KCRW’s Caleigh Wells reported this special investigation. Additional reporting by George LeVines and Emily Zentner. It was edited by Adriene Hill and Mike Kessler of the California Newsroom, a collaboration of the state’s public radio stations.