Jul 15, 2023

Caldor Fire survivors are taking legal action against U.S. Forest Service

A burned sign greets travelers in Grizzly Flat, Calif. Tuesday, August 17, 2021.

Andrew Nixon / CapRadio

Caldor Fire survivors are taking on the federal government, claiming the U.S. Forest Service failed to protect the town of Grizzly Flats from one of the worst wildfires in California’s history.The Caldor Fire ignited in August of 2021 and within days burned through Grizzly Flats, located about 35 miles southwest of Lake Tahoe. The blaze destroyed more than 400 of the 600 homes in the mountain community.Two years later, Grizzly Flats fire survivors are still struggling. Many did not have wildfireinsurance, due to exorbitant premium costs. Some have moved to other towns, trying to restart their lives from scratch. Others are still living in RVs and trailers on burned-out properties. Few — if any — individuals have received direct financial assistance from the federal government for their losses.Now, dozens of survivors are organizing an effort to file claims for damages against the Forest Service. They allege the agency knew Grizzly Flats could be wiped off the map if a fire started on federal land, but the Forest Service failed to properly protect the town.“There's a strong desire to have accountability for what happened to our community,” saidJonathan Jochem, who has spent the last two years repairing his Grizzly Flats home after the Caldor Fire.Jochem and other residents have organized workshops to help people complete thecomplicated claims paperwork. He expects at least 50 people to file for damages against the Forest Service in the coming days, as the two-year deadline approaches. If their claims are denied in the coming months, Grizzly Flats residents can then sue the federal government.The Forest Service declined an interview request. In an email, spokesperson Adrienne Freeman said the agency is not aware of any pending lawsuits.

Residents are leveling a litany of accusations against the Forest Service, according to theclaims paperwork.The claims cite an investigation published last year by CapRadio and The California Newsroom that examined the agency’s poor management of federal forest land around the community. The investigation found the Forest Service identified the threat of wildfire about two decades ago, but ultimately stalled in its efforts to manage 15,000 acres of overgrown land bordering Grizzly Flats. The Caldor Fire burned through the unfinished Forest Service project before destroying the town. The investigation resulted in a Congressional inquiry into the Forest Service’s handling of wildfire prevention around Grizzly Flats.The claims paperwork also cites a 60 Minutes investigation that called into question the Forest Service’s initial emergency response during the early days of the fire.Seeking damages from the federal government over wildfire destruction can be an uphill battle, and similar cases have failed in the past. Jochem acknowledged the process could take years, especially if their case goes to court. But he believes the last two years have demonstrated the patience — and persistence — of Grizzly Flats residents.“People are struggling, living in trailers and tents, or putting up much smaller houses than they had before because that's all they can afford,” he said. He added that the compensation “would be life-altering” for many fire survivors.Rick Lower and Mary Ann Cook are among those who have already filed a claim against the Forest Service. The married couple lived in Grizzly Flats for about five years before the Caldor Fire destroyed their home.When asked what they lost in the fire, Lower said it’s easier to list the things they were able to save.“My truck, a small fifth wheel trailer and our lives,” he said. “Everything else, we lost.”The couple had wildfire insurance, but they said it didn’t come close to covering the value of their home and the belongings inside. They now live in a smaller house in Crescent City along California’s coast, because rebuilding in Grizzly Flats was unfeasible.Beyond the financial losses, they said the mental and emotional stress continues to take its toll.“We want closure, is what we want,” Lower said.Cook agreed with her husband, and then added: “I also think that there needs to be justice and accountability.”

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