San Francisco Chronicle
Fire evacuees return to devastated town
Emotions raw as residents see what’s left of Grizzly Flats
GRIZZLY FLATS, El Dorado County — Looking at the ashsmothered ground where their green, three-bedroom home had stood before the Caldor Fire laid waste to their Sierra Foothills town, Josh Freis recalled his fiancee’s shake of the head when he’d asked, driving up on Sunday, whether she was ready to see the house. “No,” replied Caitlin Giannini.
Their mix of anticipation and dread was shared by other Grizzly Flats residents who were allowed back temporarily to assess the damage after fire crews finally gained an upper hand against the blaze. A stretch of Highway 50 reopened Sunday after being closed for more than three weeks as Caldor flames blazed to the edge of South Lake Tahoe, narrowly sparing the city.
Grizzly Flats had not been so fortunate. The fire there claimed 650 homes along with the post office, school, church and fire station.
It sent residents fleeing — with Freis, 32, and Giannini, 31, among the evacuees. While staying with family in Laguna Beach (Orange County), Freis proposed, and Giannini said yes. The two began trying
to map out a life together, even after learning from neighbors that their Grizzly Flats home had not survived.
On Sunday, Freis and Giannini were among the first back to survey the damage.
The green house that Freis had purchased in 2017, newly remodeled with hardwood floors and a kitchen stocked with modern appliances, was now a pile of ash. Trees were scarred and blackened. The few items that survived now seemed like artifacts from another time: a toy truck that belonged to Freis’ grandmother in the 1940s, and one of the Toyota car parts he collected to sell on eBay.
He loaded it into his truck. “That’s $200,” he said.
All around them, the scorched landscape was starting to show signs of life. Firefighters had the Caldor Fire 65% contained Sunday night, with a total of 219,267 acres consumed so far — including most of Grizzly Flats.
For areas bounded by the South Fork of the American River and Granite Springs Road, evacuation orders were downgraded to warnings so people could temporarily come back and assess the damage. Fire officials also lifted evacuation orders for all residences in Christmas Valley accessed from Highway 89 south of Highway 50 in Meyers.
Highway 50 reopened to all traffic from Ice House Road near Riverton to 36 Mile Stone east of Kyburz. The section extending to Sawmill Road, within a few miles of South Lake Tahoe, remained closed, according to Caltrans.
Roughly 1,200 residents of the devastated Grizzly Flats area began trickling back Sunday, a process expected to continue into Monday. They traveled along roads that now formed a sprawling “mop-up” site, lined with hoses, machinery for hauling, and giant water “pumpkin” containers that firefighters use to store water in remote areas, officials said.
President Biden on Sunday granted Gov. Gavin Newsom’s request for a major disaster declaration for the Caldor Fire, clearing the way for new federal assistance to help recovery efforts. Most evacuees were just beginning to confront the toll that a huge wildfire had taken on their lives.
Allison Kashuba picked through the rubble of her home Sunday afternoon, searching for the porcelain Kewpie doll left behind. Wearing gloves, she rummaged under the stainless steel sink that was still mostly unscathed, brushed away the dust, and sighed. The doll was nowhere to be found. Their 4-year-old daughter’s melted tricycle lay in the driveway.
“The Walmart plate is still intact,” Kashuba, 36, told her husband, Peter Kashuba, holding up a white plate.
But nearly all their possessions were gone. A metal teapot sat on what remained of the gas stove. The red glass antique dish set, punch bowl and ladle — all were destroyed.
Allison recalled their custom wood countertops and beautiful French doors opening to the porch. They had lovingly cultivated a garden of green onions, strawberries, blackberries and bell peppers, surrounded by wood from trees that Peter Kashuba, 38, had chopped down.
The Kashubas had recently built a pool for their three children and planned to paint the faded green house a rich blue before the evacuation orders came down. Peter hastily packed the car with old photos, Barbie dolls and the family’s husky. He could hear propane tanks exploding in the background. The family fled to Sacramento to stay with his mother.
Several days later, as Allison folded laundry and watched a Sacramento newscast, a photo of a burned Grizzly Flats home flickered on TV.
“I was watching and my heart just stopped,” she said Sunday, her voice breaking. “Oh my God, I think that’s the house. That’s how we found out.”
“We are going to be rebuilding, but we got a long road to go,” Allison said, wiping her hair from her face as she continued picking through the debris.
Down the road, Linda Bolen, 59, stared at what was left of the three-bedroom, beige house where she had lived with her husband, Tony Bolen, for 22 years. Tony, a 58-year-old carpenter, redid the kitchen and built a large outdoor deck and a gray gazebo. Linda helped landscape their home and installed yard art. The multicolored windmills were now black, but still standing. The tin donkey that used to be orange was now gray.
The house itself had burned, and the Bolens found no trace of Tony’s vintage Gibson guitar, or the knickknacks of chickens and roosters that belonged to Linda’s mother. Linda fought tears.
“No matter where we go, it’s not ever going to be like this because we put our whole life into this,” she said. “We wanted to retire in here.”
Cal Fire officials acknowledged the pain of Grizzly Flats residents returning for the first time to a town that was nearly leveled.
The agency’s Sunday morning briefing began with optimism: Winds were calm, temperatures had fallen. Operations Section Chief Brian Mackwood asked for patience on Highway 50, still packed with emergency equipment. Officials warned of distracted drivers gawking at the fire zone.
His tone became somber as he addressed the Grizzly Flats fire victims: “We will take care of you,” Mackwood said, adding that his crews would help with anything, “even if that’s just a hug.”
In spite of the temperate weather conditions over the weekend, the threat of the Caldor Fire hasn’t died, said Rob Clark, a Cal Fire behavioral analyst. Brush and timber smoldered through the night on the fire’s west zone, and rain that swept through Thursday will dry up quickly, Clark noted.
“Just because we don’t see a whole lot of smoke in the air and active fire running around doesn’t mean the potential is gone,” he said.
As of Sunday, the Caldor Fire was the 15th largest in California history. To the north, the Dixie Fire had scorched 960,335 acres and was 67% contained Sunday night — less than 100,000 acres from becoming the largest wildfire in California history.