Published on March 29, 2022.

Letter from Grizzly Flats

Eight years ago, Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan, manager of NFPA’s Firewise USA program, left wildland firefighting to help residents and communities prepare themselves to withstand wildfire. As she recounts here, her recent visit to a fire-ravaged California town illustrates the enormity of the challenge—and underscores why she wanted to work with communities in the first place.

ne of Mark Almer’s favorite features
of his house is the standing seam metal roof, a kind of slate gray that goes well with the home’s blue siding and white trim. But aesthetic appeal isn’t the main reason he’s so fond of it—the noncombustible roof was a big reason why the home survived a rampaging wildfire last August. “We switched from composite shingles to metal about 15 years ago and haven’t looked back,” he says, gazing up at it. “We’re never replacing this roof.”

He’s also a fan of the concrete patio and composite deck. A wooden deck once wrapped around the house, until Almer recognized that it could easily ignite in a wildfire and take his home down with it. The wood was removed, replaced with the noncombustible materials. “The roof and decking were probably the two largest building construction factors” for why his house survived last summer’s wildfire, he tells us.

RELATED: Why participation in Firewise is more critical than ever

Almer is giving us a tour of his property, methodically cataloguing the steps he and his wife, Susan, have taken over the years to harden the buildings and create defensible space to protect against the threat of wildfire. The Almers’ home is located in the pine forests of Grizzly Flats, a small community (pop. 1,200) on the western slope of California’s Sierra Nevada. In August, a powerful wildfire, the Caldor Fire, tore through the area, destroying about 450 of the town’s estimated 600 homes, along with the elementary school, the post office, a church, and the local fire station, among many other structures. Most of the homes belonging to the Almers’ neighbors were destroyed. The Almers’ property—the house, garage, and storage building, along with an improbable white gazebo—appear untouched, surrounded on all sides by vast stretches of blackened forest.

I’d been exchanging texts with Mark for a couple of months. As manager of NFPA’s Firewise USA®, a voluntary program that encourages residents in wildfire-prone areas to protect their homes and property from wildland fire hazards, I had a connection to Grizzly Flats. The community had participated in Firewise USA since 2007, and I’d gotten to know a number of people in the town, including Mark. When I heard that Grizzly Flats had become yet another community nearly obliterated by a wildland fire, I wanted to see for myself what had happened, and to hear from residents about what had worked and what hadn’t. I wanted to figure out what homeowners and communities could do to further protect themselves against wildfire risk. In November, an NFPA wildfire colleague, Aron Anderson, and I made the trip to Grizzly Flats from our offices near Denver. 

Since they evacuated Grizzly Flats ahead of the Caldor Fire, Mark and Susan and their six cats had spent more than three months living out of a Residence Inn because of damage to local infrastructure, including the water system. They’d moved back into the house just a few days before we arrived. Even so, Mark already has strands of multicolored holiday lights strung from the eaves. He is in his early 60s, soft spoken, and wears a black ball cap and jacket both emblazoned with the orange emblem of baseball’s San Francisco Giants. His black t-shirt reads “Caldor Fire 2021.” He describes 15 years of work to prepare his property for a wildfire: large efforts like replacing the roof and deck, and weekend projects that added small but vital pieces of protection. He taps the siding of the house—like the roof and patio, it’s made of noncombustible materials. The gutters are designed to prevent leaves and pine needles from collecting. The home’s vents are fitted with a tight metal mesh to keep flying embers from getting inside. 

The Almers also increased the defensible space around the buildings. The home’s foundation is free of vegetation, and the tree line has been pushed back. Dried pine needles—a highly combustible fuel—are raked multiple times each year, by hand. Two months before the fire, Mark and his neighbors clear cut beneath a Pacific Gas & Electric powerline that abuts the north side of his property, removing trees and underbrush that the utility had allowed to proliferate. Just yards away, on the other side of the cleared area, heavy stands of trees and undergrowth were consumed by the fire. Besides a short length of split-rail fence that burned, Mark is most wistful about the 28 cords of wood, split and stacked out near the powerline, that he lost to the fire, much of it a product of the June clear cut effort. “I’m ok with losing it, because I stacked it that far out—if it had been next to the house, this would be a different conversation,” he says, gazing out where the pile once stood. “I feel really confident that our house survived because of the combination of noncombustible construction and the defensible space.”

Mark walks Megan and Aron around his Grizzly Flats, California, property. VIDEO: Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan 

Mark and Susan did a lot of things right, and their story is a model of how the guidelines offered by Firewise can help millions of people across the country prepare their properties to withstand even the most adverse wildfire conditions. But I also recognize that not everyone can afford to take the steps that the Almers did, even over many years. I also realize that some of the losses endured by Grizzly Flats and other communities in the path of the Caldor Fire were unavoidable, because I know from my experience as a wildland firefighter that even hardened structures can succumb to wildfire if the conditions are extreme enough. Even so, homes and other buildings survived the Caldor Fire as a result of the steps—some large, many small—taken by property owners well in advance of the fire. 

There were aspects of our trip to Grizzly Flats that were troubling, but it also confirmed for me why I opted to leave firefighting and work toward prevention and preparation. Whether they realize it or not, people who choose to live in places like Grizzly Flats—small, isolated, and lacking the resources of larger communities—are choosing to live with wildfire. When they make that choice, they have an important role to play in protecting their own homes and property—and I can help them do that. I absolutely understand the appeal of these places, but it needn’t be clouded by the threat of obliteration by wildfire.

A wildfire life

Aron and I flew from Denver to Sacramento, grabbed a rental car, and made the 90-minute drive up to Grizzly Flats. The higher into the hills we drove, the denser and taller the trees became. The fall colors were beautiful. That all faded, though, as we approached the area where the fire started. Several miles south of Grizzly Flats, the landscape transitioned rapidly from autumn woodland to a vast moonscape; previously healthy forest was reduced to little more than charred poles sticking out of the blackened ground. We saw an occasional home, or cluster of homes, that had made it through the fire, but all that remained of most were empty foundations with stone chimneys poking from the rubble. The shells of burned-out vehicles littered the landscape. The mood in the car turned somber as we took it all in.

Before the arrival of the moonscape, though, our drive had reminded me of childhood trips to McCall, Idaho, where my grandparents had lived when I was a kid and where my wildfire journey began. McCall is a small town located a couple hours north of Boise in the Payette National Forest. The attractions are obvious: fresh air, trees, open spaces, mountains, solitude. For some it’s home, and for many others it’s a weekend getaway. As in Grizzly Flats, homes in McCall are spread throughout the landscape, many surrounded by dense vegetation. A mix of building materials and roofing types are used on structures, some fire resistant and some not. Evacuation routes are limited; the only major road running through McCall is state highway 55. The prevalence of second homes and absent landowners means properties may not be as prepared for a wildfire event as they need to be.   

My family would visit McCall from our home in Rainier, Washington, in the summers, and it was on those trips that I was introduced to wildfire. Summer storms would travel across the mountains bringing lightning and thunder, leaving wildfires in their paths. Over the following days and sometimes weeks, we watched as helicopters and airplanes passed overhead on their way to engage the fires. The impressive response got my attention; in my child’s imagination, I began to think that I wanted to be involved in fighting those wildfires, too. 

Wildfire was already a family affair. After retiring from the military in the 1970s, my grandfather, Martin, went to work for what is now known as the National Interagency Fire Center, in Boise, coordinating the movement of crews and other resources to wildfires throughout the region. When he moved his family to McCall, he worked for the Payette National Forest in a similar capacity. My grandmother, Betty, also worked for the forest service. One season when we stayed with them, my mom, Jeanine, worked at the nearby fire cache, a warehouse with a supply of fire tools and other equipment assembled in preparation for fire suppression efforts.

After my first year of college, at Washington State University, I returned to McCall for the summer to work on a Youth Conservation Corps crew. Most of our jobs were hard manual labor, but they exposed us to aspects of natural resource management, including prepping areas for prescribed fires. I wanted to be more directly involved with the wildfire effort, though, and the following summer I landed a wildfire job with the Washington State Department of Natural Resources (DNR). I worked as a crewmember on what was known as a type five engine, an initial attack apparatus with a three-person crew. That was the summer I learned the basics of wildland firefighting: how to dig line, take weather, deploy a hose lay, and whatever else my crew needed me to do. It was also my first close-up exposure to the damage a wildfire can inflict on homes and property. One of our assignments that summer included a couple of weeks mopping up on a fire outside a small town in eastern Washington, cleaning up smoldering stumps and hot spots around homes. As I’d suspected when I was a kid watching the firefighting aircraft pass over McCall, wildfire was in fact a calling. I loved it, and I was hooked.

Over the next decade, I spent eight seasons—typically June through September, though sometimes longer—as a firefighter with the Washington State DNR, progressing from a basic firefighter to a qualified engine boss, and was an engine lead my last five seasons. I worked a lot of different types of fires, from small, escaped campfires in the forests to large wildland incidents that threatened homes and communities. Some of the assignments were low-key, with easy conditions and straightforward tasks. Others were more complex and involved the protection of homes in areas I didn’t necessarily want to drive into, landscapes defined by steep terrain and narrow roads. 

The author during wildland firefighting operations. “I still saw firefighting as vitally important,” she writes of her desire to leave, “but I wanted to move to a role that helped protect people, homes, and communities ahead of a fire.”

One of those occurred in 2012, at the Table Mountain Fire in central Washington. It was October and the fire had been going for weeks, burning on steep hillsides through stands of trees already weakened by insect damage. Our operations were an hour’s drive from base camp on narrow dirt roads. I was an acting engine crew boss, part of a strike team of five engines, and those crews became a hand crew of about 15 firefighters. We worked the night shift—we were never able to see the terrain in daylight. The first couple of nights were spent protecting structures and conducting cleanup activities. But the longer we were there, the worse it began to feel. The fire would burn during the day, with the potential for strong winds at night and the added potential of damaged, unhealthy trees falling on us. One night, the crew was scoping out the fire line, and I could tell it wasn’t right—if the winds shifted in a certain way, the fire could suddenly be trouble, and we didn’t have a lot of options to get out if fire conditions changed. The strike team leader, myself, the other crew bosses—we discussed our options that night, with a focus on keeping our crews safe. We all got back to camp alright, but I remember thinking, “Why are we here? What good is this doing?”  

I’d already been thinking of other ways I could be involved with wildfire, aside from suppression efforts, when Yarnell Hill occurred. That was the 2013 wildfire in Arizona that resulted in the deaths of 19 firefighters, and the event sent shock waves through the nation’s wildfire community. My first response when I heard of Yarnell was disbelief that something so catastrophic could happen. My next response was anger—a lot of anger. And a lot of familiar questions: Why were they there? What was the plan? Why do we put people into situations like that? It took a while for the lessons of that incident to emerge, but even then it was very hard for anyone who wasn’t there to truly understand what had occurred or to pass judgment on the decisions that had been made. There have been incidents since Yarnell that have been more of the same, and it’s extremely frustrating to witness. Yarnell Hill felt like the final nudge to give me the motivation to move on from conventional wildland firefighting. I still saw firefighting as vitally important, but I wanted to move to a role that helped protect people, homes, and communities ahead of a fire so we didn’t have to put firefighters in that position to begin with.

My opportunity came in 2014, when I moved into a position in the wildfire division of Washington’s DNR—just like my grandfather had. I managed agreements with suppression resources to support large wildfire response, worked in the state coordination center helping move resources to where they were needed, and went on assignments to local dispatch centers. I took phone calls from scared and hurting residents who were losing their homes to wildfire as we spoke—it was exhausting and heartbreaking work. The two years in that position were some of the busiest of my career, with both years experiencing record-breaking fires in the state in terms of size and damage. 

As a result of Washington’s then-unprecedented wildfires of 2015, a new position was created to manage state funds that would help communities complete fire-safe actions on the ground and create new Firewise communities throughout the state. It sounded even closer to how I wanted to be involved in wildfire, and I was thrilled when I got the job. The position allowed me to connect with DNR regional staff, their local networks, and residents living in wildfire areas. We created grants, hosted workshops, and supported and visited existing and new Firewise communities. I also acted as the state liaison to the national Firewise USA program. I quickly learned that all of this is just as hard as wildland firefighting, only in a different way. Wildfire preparedness is about dealing with people, trying to create behavior change and persuading them to consider things they may not want to do. In some cases, they may not feel like they can afford to do it. It’s a tough and tricky process. The gratification isn’t as immediate as putting out a fire, but for me, at least, the return can be so much more fulfilling.
Those experiences came with me when I arrived at NFPA nearly five years ago. In managing the Firewise USA program, I’ve found that it’s extremely valuable to be able to look at things through the eyes of a wildland firefighter as well as through the lens of community wildfire preparedness. For me, it comes down to two interconnected questions: What resources exist to help people and communities protect their homes and property against wildfire, and how can those actions benefit firefighters and wildfire management teams so they can safely engage in suppression efforts and protect those communities?

All of that was going through my mind as Aron and I drove through the ruined settlements of Grizzly Flats on that bright November day. So was an additional question: How do we get more people living in places like Grizzly Flats to take steps to improve their chances of surviving a wildfire? 

The proactive imperative 

The wildfire that became the Caldor Fire began on August 14 in California’s El Dorado County, just south of Grizzly Flats. It burned slowly for a couple of days, moving north and east, consuming about 2,000 acres. On August 16, driven by strong winds and aided by heavy fuel loads and historically dry conditions, the blaze began to take off. It exploded on the night of August 17, when it hit Grizzly Flats, moving with a speed and intensity that alarmed even seasoned wildfire experts. Between August 17 and August 18, the fire grew by nearly 40,000 acres, the largest single-day increase in its roughly two-month run. 

The fire overran Grizzly Flats, which had been evacuated, and by August 18 it had burned more than 62,000 acres and was 0 percent contained. The fire was moving fast up the slopes of the Sierras, headed for the resorts of the Lake Tahoe basin. It reached 100,000 acres on August 22, and a week later approached 200,000 acres—more than 312 square miles—when it was less than 20 percent contained. On August 30 it attained another milestone: that was the day the fire muscled its way up and over the granite crest of the Sierras—once thought to be an impermeable fire break—and began burning down through the eastern valleys. It was only the second fire in recorded history to cross the Sierras; the first had occurred 12 days earlier, when the immense Dixie Fire, aided by similar extreme conditions, managed the feat. The Caldor Fire burned for 69 days, consumed nearly 222,000 acres, destroyed more than 1,000 structures, and resulted in the evacuation of more than 50,000 residents across two counties. No deaths were reported. A father and son were arrested in December and charged with reckless arson for their role in starting the fire.

Desperate residents tried to save and salvage what they could before and after the Caldor Fire tore through El Dorado County in California over the summer. (Top: AP/WIDE WORLD; bottom: Getty Images) 

This kind of wildfire behavior—big, fast, and aggressive, in ways never observed before—has become the norm, not just in the western US but in fire-prone areas around the world. It is also a clear indicator that a proactive approach is the only approach for communities in fire country. Like many of the most vulnerable communities, Grizzly Flats is relatively isolated. Resources are scarce, and help is distant. Homes and other structures can be tucked away down narrow, winding roads. One resident we talked to told us about her early brush-clearing efforts on her property, when she discovered that a neighboring home was located just a few hundred feet away, hidden by the dense—and dangerous, in the event of a wildfire—undergrowth. Mark Almer estimates that between 25 and 40 percent of Grizzly Flats residents were doing some kind of wildfire mitigation work on their properties. The Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council holds annual Firewise Day events and barbeque fundraisers that include guest speakers who emphasize the importance of fire prevention and preparedness. Annual cleanup days are held where property owners can get rid of heaps of pine needles, brush, and other combustibles at drop-off Dumpsters. 

But the reality in a place like Grizzly Flats is that a mitigation participation rate of 25 to 40 percent isn’t nearly enough. Ideally, it would be closer to 80 percent or higher. More contiguous properties working together to reduce vegetation and harden homes and other structures means a reduced chance of home ignition and of those fires spreading. Burning homes can produce embers the size of dinner plates, which can easily ignite surrounding buildings and vegetation. That said, fire behavior is influenced by a host of factors, including terrain, wind, and other conditions, and there are many unknowns when trying to determine why some homes survive and others don’t. Case in point: Grizzly Flats experiences a diurnal valley wind pattern, meaning the prevailing winds reverse direction each day. The Caldor Fire burned through in one direction, then returned as the winds shifted. Homes that survived the first pass were destroyed in the second. 

From what Aron and I observed in Grizzly Flats, and from what we heard from property owners, the key to minimizing fire damage was to start at the home and work your way out. At the home, it was those fundamental things like metal roofs and noncombustible building materials, then keeping gutters and porches clear, clearing out debris from under the home, and thinning vegetation and raking leaves and needles from the surrounding property. Most of the homes that were lost in Grizzly Flats had done relatively little mitigation work; those that survived had made moderate to significant changes, like the Almers. Yes, these are mostly working people with limited time and resources, but to live with fire in a place like this you have to find a balance between those available resources and doing the necessary mitigation work to at least give yourself a fighting chance.

Grizzly Flats also demonstrated that we need to appeal to many more property owners in fire-prone communities to get involved in mitigation efforts. We can do that by working with states to provide community grants that help residents pay for improving their wildfire footprint on the ground. We can work with the insurance industry to support residents who are being proactive. Just recently, California’s insurance commissioner announced a new interagency partnership, Safer from Wildfires, that aligns with guidelines created by NFPA and the Insurance Institute for Business & Home Safety and supports property owners working to minimize wildfire risk. We can also lean on people like Mark and Susan Almer to act as community leaders and to show their neighbors how it can work, in ways large and small. Mark and other residents of Grizzly Flats are already talking about building a Firewise demonstration area to help residents understand what that wildfire mitigation looks like. 

As Aron and I prepared for the drive back to Sacramento, I was struck by a sudden realization of what it must have been like for the fire crews that responded to Grizzly Flats. It must have looked overwhelming as they drove up to the town: the steep slopes, the small roads, so many vulnerable homes and buildings dotting the landscape. The wind would have been intense. I could imagine them looking around, with the fire close and growing rapidly, and wondering what they were doing there and how they were going to stay safe. With the severity of the conditions, I imagine their response was limited and that they were very deliberate about where they put resources. Even so, it would’ve been a long 24 to 48 hours in those burning hills. 

Grizzly Flats these days is a hum of activity. The natural sounds of the forest are replaced by the din of chainsaws as crews remove damaged trees. Large trucks haul out debris from destroyed properties. The water company is working to restore water to remaining properties and chase down leaks in buried water pipes, a side-effect of the oversized vehicles pounding up and down the tiny roads. 

The people we met in Grizzly Flats are hopeful that those displaced by the fire will come back; some may, but many others may not. The hope is that those who do will build differently, maintain their properties differently, and give firefighters more opportunities to protect and save homes. The first step is for residents to acknowledge that wildfire is a reality in their lives, and that they can do something about it—and that people like me can help. There are no guarantees, but it’s a start.

Megan Fitzgerald-McGowan is manager of NFPA’s Firewise USA program. Scott Sutherland, NFPA Journal editor, contributed reporting and other material to this story. 
Top photograph: Getty Images