This week is the anniversary of an event no one is celebrating. It’s when winds swept a forest fire from spark to blaze across Grizzley Flat – a small mountain community of about 2000 people and 600 homes. By the end of that day in 2021, residents had fled – taking their families, animals, and essential belongings down a narrow, winding road to safety wherever they could find it. Within a couple of weeks, communities throughout the entire region were evacuated. It was the start of the Caldor Fire that eventually consumed 220,000 acres of forestlands from Lake Tahoe to the edge of the community where I live at 4000 feet. Some of you who were with me last year may remember my reports about the efforts to fight the fire and care for people whose lives were upended as they wondered if they’d have homes to return to.
Now, a year later, most of us have settled back into life on our mountain – though sales of homes in the region rose sharply as folks made more permanent moves out of the fire-prone area. Now, it’s another year and another fire season. By early June, we started hearing about fires erupting throughout our region – some a few hundred acres – others consuming thousands. We listen acutely for the sound of sirens – and we can now easily identify fire sirens from those on an ambulance or police vehicle.
Like lots of families, we came home to clean up a significant mess – including finding golf-ball-size embers on our property – little black orbs that had carried a flame. We had raking, hauling, washing, and a refrigerator full of rotting food to haul to the dump. But we got off easy. The families from Grizzley Flat did not. Many still live in trailers or with relatives as efforts to help restore their losses are stalled in complicated government red tape, competing priorities, and undelivered promises.
This week a thorough accounting of how and why the Caldor Fire happened was published in a long-form piece of excellent journalism by a couple of local news outlets. It is the story of tangled bureaucracy and shifting responsibilities that continue to keep the families from Grizzley from starting over. Rebuilding. Going home. Tangles of politics in which promises from federal authorities were not kept and fire agencies were trapped in a confusion of competition for priorities and funds. Promises that were made by Washington to fire refugees remain unfulfilled. This, among everyday concerns about lightning strikes, wind, careless campers, and drought conditions, is an emotional burden we carry as the price to live here – in and with Mother Nature.
I remember the day we returned home – driving up the narrow two-lane road and spotting signs that had already been posted – thanking firefighters and first responders for their courage. Signs in magic markers, paint, and crayons, were tacked up on trees and power poles. We were so raw that these little tokens of gratitude brought tears of gratitude to my eyes and a crazy idea to my mind. Over weeks of writing my blog from our temporary shelter, I’d talked with many people involved in the firefight – from first responders to volunteers and community organizations. The El Dorado Community Foundation alone raised about $3.5 million and spearheaded life-saving assistance for displaced families who were camping in parking lots and churchyard.
I learned the effort to thank those who served us so valiantly was wider than our western horizon – volunteers came from throughout the state, from out-of-state, and, in fact, from out of the country. They served families, kept livestock safe, cared for family pets that had been left behind. The Pizza Factory in our abandoned little town of Pollock Pines opened every day – just so that responders would have access to a bathroom and indoor shelter. Restaurants delivered free meals to evacuees camping in shopping center parking lots. Volunteers wandered our empty streets at night to deter looters. One made sure our (pet) feral cat was fed on our doorstep.
Taking all this in, knowing the breadth of selfless acts of courage and kindness led me to a decision I’ve lived with since last November. I knew the heartfelt and handmade signs would fade with time, and I decided to create a permanent monument to the Heroes of the Caldor Fire. Here’s where I am today – I’ve made six panels – each depicting an aspect of the experience: firefighters (Local, state, and Indigenous), air support, wild Sierra animals, and community volunteers. When in bronze, it will create three two-sided panels on a base. It’s an ancient and complicated (and expensive) process to get from clay to bronze. Briefly – we make a mold from my clay sculpture, pour hot wax into the mold to make another positive image, and then work on the wax with our tools until it’s as perfect as possible. Then, off to the foundry, where a similar (and far more expensive) process takes place. The result is bronze art that will endure for generations.
With the creative and enjoyable part of the project nearly finished, I’ve moved on to raising funds to pay the casting costs (about $5000 for each panel cast). I’ve also found a wonderful home for the monument – right in the center of activity in our town, hosted by the owners of a historic restaurant with roots in the area’s early days. I’ve been looking for donations – large and small with optimism and belief that the project is a worthy one. If I should have the fortune of raising more than needed, I’ll donate the balance to the fund for the still-dislocated families from Grizzley Flat.
This anniversary, though tragic and everpresent, celebrates people everywhere who care, act and give of themselves. I believe generations will visit the monument- some to remember – and many more to learn about the power of fire and the enduring strength of community.
You can see more about the Caldor Tribute HERE
Donations in any amount are appreciated HERE
Read the in-depth story of the Caldor Fire HERE
I hope it's not as hot where you are as it is where I am! In the valley below, it's over 100 and has been for a few days. It seems Mother Nature is giving us a lot to bear and to think about. Thanks, as always, for sticking with me and my memories and wandering thoughts. Let me know about you! I appreciate hearing from you! Email me at email@example.com
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