Uncomfortably close to Lake Tahoe, the Caldor Fire is now the nation’s top-priority wildfire underscoring the potential damage it could yet unleash even as weather conditions improve and resources continue to flow to the area.
The fire, which has destroyed more than 550 buildings in El Dorado County, had ignited 114,166 acres by Monday night as officials continued to sound alarms. The blaze has such destructive potential that it has jumped to the front of the line when it comes to allocating personnel, fire trucks, aircraft and other tools from around the country, Cal Fire Chief Thom Porter said during a briefing Monday.
“It is that important,” he said. “It is knocking on the door to the Lake Tahoe basin. We have all efforts in place to keep it out of the basin, but we do also need to be aware that that is a possibility based on the way the fires have been burning.”
Officials had reason to be optimistic the fire wouldn’t make it that far. Winds that had been propelling the blaze forward have died down and are expected to remain low for the next few days, said Cal Fire Captain Keith Wade. Firefighters hit a milestone Sunday night when they managed to contain 5% of the fire — the first time in more than a week they’ve had any part of the fire controlled — and Wade expects that percentage to increase in coming days. By Monday night, containment had risen to 9% with an estimated containment date of August 31.
Firefighters are now taking advantage of low winds to ignite controlled burns that will dispose of dry fuel before the Caldor Fire can reach it, Wade said. And the smoky air that had grounded Cal Fire aircraft has cleared enough to allow airdrops of water and fire retardant to resume. Officials even have deployed new night-flying helicopters from Southern California.
But the people who have lost their homes remain stuck in limbo, waiting in evacuation shelters, trailers, hotels and friends’ homes, unable to return to their properties, assess the damage and make plans either to rebuild or move on.
Tobe Magidson is determined to rebuild and help his neighbors do the same. After eight months of renovations he did himself, Magidson, a 44-year-old contractor, moved into his new Grizzly Flats house in early August. Less than two weeks later, it burned to the ground along with much of the neighborhood.
It’s an especially heartbreaking loss, because to Magidson, the house represented a better future for his 14-year-old son and 15-year-old daughter. Magidson had a rough childhood, growing up in poverty and instability. The one happy constant in his life was Grizzly Flats — the beautiful, forest community where he visited his extended family and went four-wheeling.
Last year, Magidson scraped together about $70,000 and bought a piece of property there, in a remote enclave off a dirt road. It was a dream come true.
Now, the house — along with his mother’s cottage and his aunt’s RV — is a pile of rubble.
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“I was a single dad. I lived in cars. I lived in one-bedroom apartments — did everything I could to get to this point,” Magidson said, his voice breaking, “and it just got ripped away from us.”
Magidson, like many of his neighbors, wasn’t able to get fire insurance. Even so, he’s getting a group of contractors together to attempt to rebuild the community. He hopes to save money by buying building materials in bulk for dozens of homes, and plans to pass those savings on to his cash-strapped neighbors.
The Caldor Fire ignited Aug. 14 and it is one of four major wildfires in Northern California. Overall, according to Cal Fire, 13 major wildfires are still active in California and have burned through 1.54 million acres — more than twice the size of Yosemite.
“Fires are burning in ways that nobody has seen before,” Porter said.
The Dixie Fire, the largest of those blazes, had burned more than 725,000 acres Monday. The blaze has burned for 40 days, and crews had contained 40% of it.
When the Caldor Fire tore through Grizzly Flats, it was the second week of sophomore year and Bella Magidson, Tobe Magidson’s 15-year-old daughter, had just started to make friends at her new high school.
Now, she’s back to distance learning.
“It was great,” she said of her new school. “It was a fresh, new start — starting high school for the first time since COVID and actually being able to make friends and see people in real life. It felt like I had my life back for a little bit. And then it just got taken away.”
Bella is as determined as her father to rebuild, and launched a GoFundMe page to raise money for the project: gofundme.com/f/help-the-magidsons-rebuild-their-homes. There was one thing in particular that sealed the deal for them when it comes to rebuilding: the ashes of Tobe Magidson’s father, who died years before, were in the house when it burned down.
“If he’s going to be there forever,” Magidson said, “then I’m not going to give up.”