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Forest Service fell short of executing plan to protect town from fire, probe finds

AILSA CHANG, HOST:

The Caldor Fire burned through the town of Grizzly Flats in Northern California one year ago. It destroyed about two-thirds of the community. And an investigation from CapRadio and the California Newsroom found that the U.S. Forest Service fell short of implementing its own plan to protect the town. CapRadio's Scott Rodd reports.

SCOTT RODD, BYLINE: Mark Almer's house stands out amid the devastation. It's robin's egg blue and looks untouched, as if the Caldor Fire's flames just skirted past.

MARK ALMER: It's kind of lonely around here now. It's kind of strange.

RODD: The 60-year-old former fire inspector is standing in his garage, gazing at the hollowed-out neighborhood. He says his home survived because he spent years fireproofing it. He swapped out flammable siding for concrete and replaced his wood deck with fire-resistant material.

ALMER: It's probably three times the cost of a standard redwood deck, but I think ultimately, that's what saved us.

RODD: Embers scorched the deck, but it never ignited. Almer says the threat of wildfire became clear after a warning from the Forest Service nearly two decades ago. The agency gathered residents at the community church and presented fire modeling that predicted a blaze similar to the Caldor Fire.

ALMER: They showed a fire that could potentially wipe out our community within 24 hours.

RODD: Almer helped create a volunteer group called the Grizzly Flats Fire Safe Council to protect the town. They began clearing excess vegetation from around homes and removing brush near evacuation roads. But as the volunteers hustled, the Forest Service idled.

KATHY MELVIN: The history of the Forest Service in the time that we lived there was that everything took forever.

RODD: Kathy Melvin is a former Fire Safe Council member. She lost her home in the Caldor Fire and shared a property line with the Forest Service. After the meeting in the community church, the Forest Service tackled some smaller fire prevention projects, but it took 10 years to announce a comprehensive plan to protect Grizzly Flats. It was called the Trestle Project, and it promised to reduce overgrown brush and set prescribed fires on 15,000 acres of federal land around the town. That would create a protective buffer. But as Melvin recalls...

MELVIN: It would take years and years and years for anything to get done.

RODD: The Forest Service originally said it would finish the Trestle Project by 2020. However, that timeline fell apart. Our investigation found the agency finished only 14% of the planned work before the Caldor Fire, which burned through the unfinished project and then devastated Grizzly Flats. Forest Service officials cite a number of reasons for the stalled effort - staffing shortages, pushback from environmental groups, too many days when prescribed burns would be dangerous due to hotter, drier conditions caused by climate change, and maybe the biggest hurdle of all...

RANDY MOORE: We did not have the funding to do the level of work that needed to be done out there.

RODD: Chief Randy Moore leads the U.S. Forest Service. He's optimistic that billions of dollars recently allocated by Congress will jumpstart other planned projects around the country.

MOORE: There are a number of communities that are at risk.

RODD: Does the Forest Service bear any responsibility for the outcome in Grizzly Flats?

MOORE: Well, I mean, I don't know what kind of question that is. I mean, you know, do anybody bear any responsibility for not having the budget to do the work that we need to do?

MICHAEL WARA: It's sad to think about what could've been.

RODD: Michael Wara is a climate policy expert from Stanford University.

WARA: If all this work was done by 2020, Grizzly Flats might still be there.

RODD: That's also the opinion of former District Ranger Duane Nelson. He was one of the Trestle Project's key architects.

DUANE NELSON: I think there would have been a very high probability that Grizzly Flat would not have burned in the Caldor Fire.

RODD: He says finishing the ambitious fire mitigation plan could have meant survival for the 400-plus homes destroyed here last year. For NPR News, I'm Scott Rodd in Grizzly Flats. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Scott Rodd (CapRadio)