Trails near South Lake Tahoe less than a year after the 2021 Caldor Fire. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

While no entity has put an exact dollar figure on the financial toll of the Caldor Fire, it is in the billions of dollars. That number keeps growing as restoration efforts continue.

El Dorado County reports its costs to date are $16.3 million. This was for employees responding to the fire and recovery afterward, mutual aid, equipment and supplies. It has been reimbursed about $12.6 million by the state and FEMA.

It’s been reported the structural damage amounted to $1.2 billion, which includes the total loss of 1,005 homes or other buildings, with another 81 damaged. The town of Grizzly Flats was incinerated, and Sierra-at-Tahoe ski resort incurred significant damage.

Gov. Gavin Newsom in his request to President Biden for financial aid in September 2021 wrote, “The projected economic loss in South Lake Tahoe is estimated to reach nearly $40 million due to the Caldor Fire.”

The U.S. Forest Service says suppression costs came in at $271.1 million for the fire that started Aug. 14, 2021, and was contained Oct. 20.

There are other losses without a price tag—like the animals who died and the air that was polluted. And how does one quantify the death of Harminder Singh Grewal, the Galt police officer who died in a head-on collision on his way to the Caldor Fire? Then there were the 21 people who were injured.

Some losses were likely never reported with people and businesses being under insured or lacking insurance.

Putting a price tag on a wildfire can never quantify the emotional toll. Heart beats still skip at the sound of sirens and the smell of smoke.

Analyzing the numbers

Tahoe Prosperity Center wanted to do an economic study about the Caldor Fire, but didn’t have the money to do so. Tom Harris, an economist at University of Nevada, Reno, put together a short memo for TPC.

His analysis from figures provided by TPC showed the projected revenue decline for the entire South Shore for hotels-motels was $21 million, while the loss in revenues for retail-restaurants was $19.4 million for a four-week period between August and September that accounted for the mandatory evacuation.

The document said El Dorado County sustained an employment loss of 522 workers. This amounted to “total labor income loss of $18.2 million, lost total value added of $29.20 million, and lost total economic activity of $50.3 million.”

For Stateline, Harris, wrote the hotel-casino sector in Stateline for that same four-week timespan saw revenue declines of $32.5 million, with a loss of 343 jobs, $15.3 million in labor income and $42.9 million in economic activity loss.

Stateline casinos reported a 77 percent drop in revenues to $5.6 million for September 2021 when the area was evacuated and no one was traveling on Highway 50 into the South Shore.

This had a ripple effect because casinos pay property taxes on revenues and not the actual value of the premises. Third quarter property taxes in 2021 for the Stateline casinos were down more than 9 percent, according to the Nevada Department of Taxation.

According to the California Natural Resources Agency, the state doesn’t track or estimate the cost of wildfires in a way that accounts for public health costs or ecological damage.

Crews work to fix the dozer lines along Power Line trail on the South Shore. (Image: Leona Allen)

Businesses rebound

Every business on the South Shore was affected by the fire. Spoilage of food was a biggie for restaurants and grocery stores.

Getaway Café in Meyers had to toss nearly $18,000 worth of food. Smoke mediation was about another $12,000.

Insurance covered the losses. Owner Diane Guth praised and criticized Nationwide in the same sentence because the company later dropped Getaway Café as a client.

The restaurant was closed for 23 days that summer.

“I made the call about two days before we were actually evacuated because you couldn’t breathe anymore. People were getting headaches and were nauseous,” Guth said. “Our hoods at the restaurant had been running every single day until we were evacuated. The hoods had been pulling those particles in. That was toxic stuff.”

Siobhan Fajayan, director of marketing for Edgewood Tahoe Resort, would not reveal the economic impact on the Stateline property.

She said while the hotel and restaurants were closed until Sept. 17, Edgewood “remained steadfast in supporting first responders, providing essential resources such as accommodations and food/water to the firefighters….”

While Grocery Outlet in South Lake Tahoe did not put a dollar value on the food it donated, what was distributed filled two pickup trucks.

“It was all of the perishable products—eggs, meat, produce,” explained Ryan Schouten who works for his parents, Kim and Mike, who own the store.

The grocery store was closed for seven days.

The donations were used by South Tahoe Refuse which had set up a barbecue in its parking lot in South Lake Tahoe first for its employees who were called back to work during the evacuation because of bears creating messes. Then word spread to first responders in the basin, and they, too, were fed by the STR crew.

“It was fun to see all these police and firefighters from all these areas come in,” STR President Jeff Tillman said. Breakfast, lunch, dinner and to-go boxes were provided. “They were protecting our streets. The least we could do was feed them.”

Tillman would not talk about the economic impact to the garbage company, only saying people had been through enough so they shouldn’t have to worry about getting rid of their waste.

“Once people were able to come back in town we were already on a normal schedule,” Tillman explained. “We set up trucks parked in four different areas in the community so they could bring spoiled food to us. We did that for a week or two. We had the transfer station open if anyone wanted to get rid of spoiled food or anything else they wanted to get rid of.”

Kim Aitken, store manager for Sports Ltd. near Stateline, said the company’s insurance company fully compensated them, but she would not say what the figure was.

Summer sales are a huge part of the sporting goods’ business. With few people in town when smoke inundated the basin, then the evacuation, and the reopening not happening until after Labor Day, well, it was almost like losing an entire season of sales.

Doors were taped to try to keep the smoke out and fans were running to cleanse the air.

“We bought huge air purifiers that most people would use for, honestly, cannabis operations,” Aitken said.

While some people were arrested on looting charges, the El Dorado County Sheriff’s Office did not provide the numbers of arrests or names of people to be able to track what happened to them. Nor could the economic losses be ascertained.

Barton Health prepares to evacuate patients in August 2021 with school buses and ambulances. (Image: Barton Health)

Barton battles

Medical care is a whole different animal during crises. It entails moving people and equipment, and still being able to provide care.

Barton Health was notified evacuations were imminent before the general public was. This was in order to safely move patients and staff. On Aug. 29, the medical conglomerate used buses from Lake Tahoe Unified School District and local ambulances to move 36 skilled nursing patients to Carson City, and 16 acute patients, seven of whom had Covid, to various partner facilities in the region.

“Equipment related to medical imaging, laboratory, pharmaceuticals, general medical and surgical supplies, and critical care and trauma supplies were evacuated in order to ensure our staff and partner medical facilities can continue to provide care to patients,” Thea Schwartz, communications specialist for Barton Health, said.

Emergency room personnel were the last to leave, which was Aug. 30. Barton used its ski clinic trailer at the Heavenly Mountain Resort’s California Lodge as a triage clinic. This is where firefighters were headquartered.

Barton Memorial Hospital reopened Sept. 6 with ER and acute care services. By Sept. 13 the facility was fully operational.

“During the evacuation there were direct costs to transport patients, medical supplies, equipment, etc. In total, Barton’s estimated overall losses/expenses—direct and indirect—throughout the entire Caldor Fire event was close to $12 million. Barton was reimbursed from our insurance company for losses specific to the evacuation period at approximately $4 million,” Schwartz said.

Those figures are for the entire Barton health care system, not just the hospital.

“Lost revenue and lost patient visits occurred not only during the evacuation, but also in the weeks leading up to the evacuation due to the smoke/air quality impact on the community. Barton incurred costs to implement smoke mitigation processes including air filters and building maintenance work to improve air quality,” Schwartz explained.

Since then, insurance premiums and deductibles have “increased significantly,” according to Schwartz.

Trees felled after the Caldor Fire in the forest on the South Shore in June 2023. (Image: Kathryn Reed)

Legal ramifications

When someone is convicted or pleads guilty to starting a fire, restitution is usually part of the sentence. Because a judge said the El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office didn’t have enough evidence to take the case against the two men charged with starting the Caldor Fire to trial, restitution isn’t going to happen.

The DA’s office was uncooperative with answering questions about what, if anything, happens next.

Eldorado National Forest and DA investigators determined the probable cause of the Caldor Fire was from a bullet from people target shooting.

Eldorado Forest officials said the case rests solely with the DA’s office now.

However, the DA’s office would not answer whether the case regarding the fire is closed, or if more evidence is being sought to bring new charges against the father-son duo who have been the only suspects named to date, or if someone else may be held accountable.

Restitution for individuals, businesses and public agencies isn’t possible without a conviction.

In 2016, Wayne Allen Huntsman pleaded guilty to starting the 2014 King Fire in El Dorado County. In addition to a 20-year prison sentence, he was ordered to pay $60 million in restitution.

“We are uncertain if any restitution has been paid while he has been in prison as that is not information we generally receive,” Assistant District Attorney Lisette Suder said. “As for general restitution rules and guidelines, if someone had money before they went to prison, they would be ordered to pay restitution from what money they had. While a defendant may not be able to earn much money while in prison, a percentage of whatever small amount they may make while working jobs in prison can be set aside to pay a portion of a restitution order. Some victims feel they would rather get something rather than nothing.”

Suder explained one reason prosecutors seek restitution even though in the moment the perpetrator may not have money is if “the defendant (were) to ever get money in the future from later jobs or inheritance or otherwise.”

This would also include proceeds from book deals or the like.

Helping the forest

Can a price be put on a dead tree? Maybe. El Dorado County Resource Conservation District, which has played a pivotal role in forest restoration post-Caldor, received $3.5 million from the Forest Service and a $1.2 million grant from CalFire.

To date, the Caldor is the largest fire in El Dorado County’s history and the first to be declared a federal disaster.

Work continues to help the charred forest come back to life. In all, 221,835 acres were blackened in El Dorado, Alpine and Amador counties. Most of the fire burned on the Eldorado, with 9,885 acres burning in the Lake Tahoe Basin Management Unit.

Each national forest has separate work plans to restore their lands.

Facts to date provided by the Eldorado:

  • Helicopter and ground based operations felled approximately 280 acres of hazard trees within Sierra-at-Tahoe’s ski area boundary. More than 18 million board feet of sawlogs have been removed to Tahoe Forest Products. An additional 1,000 tons of cull and biomass material has been processed on site and removed.
  • Hazard tree phase 1 when completed will include 1,849 acres across approximately 24 miles of road. A total of 24 million board feet of timber products are planned to be removed from the project area.
  • 2,058 acres of machine pile burning on the Grizzly Flat Fuel Break.
  • 39 acres of machine pile burning at Grizzly Flat Fire Station.
  • 29 acres of under burning on the Marshall Mine RX.

Last May the Eldorado conducted meetings to gather public input about its restoration project. More comments could be sought this spring, with a decision possible this summer.

The proposal’s overriding goals are to: “1) restore and manage ecosystem health and resilience, 2) reduce the threat of future uncharacteristic and catastrophic wildfires and associated risks, and 3) provide socioeconomic benefits to surrounding communities and the public in areas adversely impacted by the fire.”

LTBMU finalized a plan in 2022 for 1,528 acres of national forest lands that were burned and approximately 50 acres that were damaged during fire suppression. But work is not done. The agency this year could start on more restoration that focuses on managing the watershed, vegetation, special uses and fuels. Public comment will be sought on those proposals.

Note: A version of this story first appeared in the Tahoe Mountain News.

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