San Francisco Chronicle

More than a century of heritage turns to ash

Family loses nearly everything, including the original 1854 homestead, a blacksmith shop and 7 houses, in Caldor Fire

- By Julie Johnson

GRIZZLY FLATS, El Dorado County — Standing near the charred remains of her home, 2-year-old Lily Tyler bent over and looked at her dirt-covered toes poking out from glittery flip-flops.

Nearby, her mother, Candance Tyler, and her 13-year-old sister, Amber, picked through twisted metal and debris from their house, once covered with cedar siding milled from their land. There was the popcorn bowl, Amber’s porcelain bunny, a piece from Lily’s puzzle, the collection of antlers they’d found in the forest.

“Mama, my feet dirty,” Lily said, interrupti­ng a discussion about the precise location of rooms.

“It’s OK, peanut,” her mother replied. “That’s what we do.”

Lily and Amber are the fifth generation of Tylers to play in the dirt on the family’s 500 densely forested acres outside Grizzly Flats, an old mill and mining town in El Dorado County’s slice of the California Mother Lode.

It was in this Sierra Nevada

community where the Caldor Fire left behind its greatest damage. The fire, which started Aug. 14 near Omo Ranch, exploded in steep, rugged forest and charged into town like a fiery freight train after nightfall on Aug. 16.

The Caldor Fire leveled 440 single-family homes in Grizzly Flats before forging eastward across nearly 220,000 acres of private and federal forest lands and into the Lake Tahoe basin. Thousands of firefighte­rs prevented it from reaching South Lake Tahoe.

In Grizzly Flats, the Caldor Fire took out Walt Tyler Elementary School, named after a family patriarch. It destroyed Grizzly Flats Community Church, the local fire station and the post office. A town with an annual Halloween parade and Friday burger nights nearly disappeare­d; after the smoke cleared, 206 homes remained standing.

The Tyler family lost seven houses, including the original 1854 homestead and blacksmith shop. All told, 10 adults and four children, eight dogs, three cows, a horse, pig and pet rabbit were burned out and scattered, leaving them to live in RV parks or with family for the foreseeabl­e future.

The fire also dealt a major blow to their livelihood. They made their living by selective logging, leasing plots to companies that harvest marketable trees — sugar pine, ponderosa pine and Douglas fir. A dozen years ago, the family needed cash and logged some of their precious cedars to be made into pencils.

The towering trees that once shaded their mountain homestead are now mostly blackened matchstick­s.

Candance’s husband, Lenny Tyler, was out looking for work when she brought their daughters back to the ranch for the first time. They might be able to market some of the burned trees as salvage timber. And they could mill the wood themselves. Lenny would try to supplement their income with jobs driving his excavator or skid-steer loader.

As she drove her daughters on rutted dirt roads through their land, the late afternoon sun pierced through the barren trees, blinding Candance.

“The trees used to block that out,” she said, pulling down the visor.

Lily, innocent narrator of their family trauma, chimed in.

“I love the sun,” she said from her car seat, where she had been napping under a plush camouflage blanket.

They were adjusting to being part of a growing class of California­ns: fire survivors.

Wildfires have destroyed more than 3,000 structures and burned 2.2 million acres across the state this year. In the past five years, nearly 47,000 homes, businesses and other structures have been lost to fires, deepening the state’s housing crisis and starting a debate about where it’s safe for people to live.

It’s become risky a way of life for California­ns living in forested areas.

Lenny Tyler feared his community would have little defense against a major wildfire given the state of the region’s forests — overgrown and dried by drought. He and Candance were on high alert as soon as the first reports of fire near Omo Ranch came late on Sunday, Aug. 14.

The next day, the Caldor Fire had burned across 750 acres and was heading toward Grizzly Flats, about 3½ miles from the fire’s origin through steep canyons folding north from the middle fork of the Cosumnes River. By Monday, the fire had hit Leoni Meadows, a 1,000-acre Christian retreat on the south edge of town. The Tylers knew it was time to go.

Friends helped load trailers to haul away as much as they could. They plugged a deep freezer into a generator and hauled that away, too, carrying meat from a pig they had raised and butchered.

Candance Tyler said it was raining fire when they drove out with the final load, knowing they would never return to the ranch as it was.

Forever changed were the places where their daughters ran free: Lily within the fenced yard that Amber measured as 15 cartwheels from house to fence. Amber would go get her aunt’s dog, and the pair would explore wherever they pleased.

Wandering the land is family tradition. Lenny’s grandmothe­r, Helen Tyler, born in 1912 in the homestead, would bang a steel pipe on an old tractor rim to call the family in for meals. Candance used an old train horn.

Today, the family is living in a crowded RV parked in her brother’s driveway in Placervill­e. At home they listened to crickets, frogs and owls at night. Placervill­e is far from a big city, but even the occasional sound of emergency sirens now jars them.

The Tylers had agricultur­al insurance — they learned since the fire it doesn’t cover timber — but none for their home. Lenny estimates 80% of their trees are charred, but he’ll have a better idea by spring how many will survive.

Even with so much lost, the land has always been good to their family, and the Tylers said they will not walk away.

“I will never stop living in the woods,” Lenny said. “Fire is just one of the risks you take. You can be where there are earthquake­s, tornadoes. Here it’s fires. We’ll rebuild, but we’ll do it different.”

The Tylers are a self-reliant clan, with 10 adults and four children living in the ranch’s seven modest homes.

They are a conservati­ve group that bristles at government rules, some shirking expensive permit fees for building on land that has been in their family since 1910. That year, Lenny’s great-grandmothe­r, Emma Miller, emigrated from Nebraska and bought the homestead from the Zollar family.

Her son, Floyd Tyler, ran a sawmill he built on the property and had a herd of 300 goats. He and his wife, Helen Tyler, raised eight children, including Lenny’s father, James, and uncle Walt, namesake of the elementary school where he was once a special education teacher.

James, Walt’s brother and Lenny’s father, died in January on the ranch at age 69 after a cancer diagnosis. A consummate woodsman who worked for the U.S. Forest Service and tended bar at Poor Red’s BarB-Q in El Dorado, he had lived on the family homestead his entire life.

As they drove toward the ranch, Amber and Candance noted whose homes still stood by skill set: The painter, the sheet rocker, the contractor, three teachers. That was good. That will be helpful, Candance said.

Putting her husband’s cousin, Ben Aubry, on speaker phone, Candance asked how he was doing. Aubry lived down a dirt road on the family property.

Aubry, his wife and sons, ages 8 and 5, were also surveying the damage.

“My poor truck,” Aubry, 38, said over the speaker, lamenting the vehicle he bought as a teen. “First truck I ever had.”

“Hi, uncle!” Lily chimed in. “Hi, sweet girl,” he replied. “What happened to your car?”

“It’s OK,” he consoled her. “You need a new truck.” “Yes, I’ll get a new truck.” They drove to Aubry’s home, an ashen heap alongside a broad, circular meadow surrounded by a cathedral of towering pine — now black. His wife, Amy Crisp, 31, was scrubbing ash off the word “Pattaya” on a mug she rescued from the wreckage, a Christmas gift from her husband from their trip to Thailand years ago. They named one of their dogs Pattaya, after the Thai resort city.

“Where’s your house?” Lily said, walking up to her aunt.

“The Caldor Fire” ... Crisp’s words trailed off.

The three children hopped in the back of Candance’s Toyota Tacoma and trundled off to see if their game cameras had survived. It was a glimpse of the way it had been: Cousins piling into someone’s truck for an adventure. Fishing in Tyler Pond. Riding bikes on the dirt tracks built into old scars that hydraulic mining had left on the land.

They still have the pond, the charred bear sculpture an uncle carved out of a log with a chainsaw, the intact fire ring and benches where they celebrated birthdays, the wooden crosses marking the grave sites of beloved dogs, countless miles of tracks winding through the towering trees.

At the old homestead made from cedar slabs, Amber searched for her great-grandparen­ts’ ceramic spice jars. Candance declared the place still felt more right than anywhere else.

“It just feels like home,” she said, cupping her ear. “Do you hear that? It’s the sound of nothing.”

But soon it was time for their visit to the ranch to end. A group of cousins and a neighbor met to caravan out, stopping at a crossroads for a few last words. Hanging their heads out the windows, engines idling, they discussed ordering pizzas and grumbled about washing dishes in RV sinks.

Reluctantl­y, they said their goodbyes. Aubry, his wife, children and a neighbor headed for the RV park in Plymouth. Candance put her truck into gear and sighed. They would head in the opposite direction. Ranch life once meant they were never far from family. Now they are scattered.

“Nobody wants to say goodbye,” she said.

 ?? Photos by Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle ?? Candance Tyler and daughters Amber (left) and Lily survey the Caldor Fire’s destructio­n of their home in Grizzly Flats.
Photos by Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle Candance Tyler and daughters Amber (left) and Lily survey the Caldor Fire’s destructio­n of their home in Grizzly Flats.
 ??  ?? Mei Xu, owner of Wonderful Chinese restaurant in Placervill­e, embraces Candance Tyler as Lily looks on.
Mei Xu, owner of Wonderful Chinese restaurant in Placervill­e, embraces Candance Tyler as Lily looks on.
 ?? Photos by Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle ?? The Tyler family has lived on the El Dorado County ranch for over a century and lost seven homes last month in the Caldor Fire.
Photos by Brontë Wittpenn / The Chronicle The Tyler family has lived on the El Dorado County ranch for over a century and lost seven homes last month in the Caldor Fire.
 ??  ?? Lily Tyler climbs down a ladder in her family’s travel trailer in Placervill­e. The extended family is trying to recover from the Caldor Fire’s destructio­n of the homestead it’s owned since 1910.
Lily Tyler climbs down a ladder in her family’s travel trailer in Placervill­e. The extended family is trying to recover from the Caldor Fire’s destructio­n of the homestead it’s owned since 1910.
 ??  ?? Candance Tyler raises a flag on a post near the rubble of the post office in Grizzly Flats. The Caldor Fire destroyed the town’s two-room schoolhous­e, the church and firehouse.
Candance Tyler raises a flag on a post near the rubble of the post office in Grizzly Flats. The Caldor Fire destroyed the town’s two-room schoolhous­e, the church and firehouse.

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from United States