Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Battalion Chief Chris Lucas is a South Lake Tahoe resident who was fighting the Dixie Fire when he got a call from his wife at 2 a.m. letting him know his family was being evacuated.
Before the call, based on the information he had, it seemed the Caldor Fire wouldn’t make it anywhere near the Tahoe Basin.
“When my wife called me, it got very real,” Lucas said. “We arrived back (in South Lake) the next day. On one hand, it’s great to fight fire in your hometown because you know the area so well. And you know, it was literally my backyard where I grew up riding mountain bikes. So, I knew the trails and knew the terrain really well, which was a huge advantage, but all the consequences of the fire were so much more real.”
As of Tuesday morning, firefighters have a line around 98 percent of the Caldor Fire and expect full containment by Halloween.
Getting back into an already evacuated city only magnified the gravity of what could potentially happen to his hometown.
“It was surreal,” Lucas said. “It was like a ghost town. You could stand in the middle of U.S. Highway 50 on a busy intersection and hear birds on Labor Day weekend.”
At the time, more than 5,000 personnel were working on the Caldor Fire, and many from Tahoe Douglas Fire and other local agencies, were part of the fight.
“Usually, you go somewhere else, you fight a fire, and when your time is up, you come back and enjoy your own backyard,” Lucas said. “But this time was a little different.”
Tahoe Douglas Fire Protection District Wildland Battalion Chief and Zephyr Crew Supervisor Matt Fogarty were on the Caldor scene for nearly 18 days, while his local crew did 24 days, and their main national wildfire crew did 28 days.
“We did quite a few extremely long shifts when it came into the Tahoe Basin,” Fogarty said. “Our crews were fully committed to do whatever it took to help suppress the fire.”
Fogarty, who’s traveled all the way to Alaska to fight a fire, said that fighting fires so close to home had a much deeper impact on him than when he traveled to protect other areas.
“The difference is the attachment to what you’re protecting,” Fogarty said. “It’s a little different when you travel a couple of days and you see what’s happened, people being displaced. You don’t have that emotional connection to them like when it’s in your backyard.”
Throughout the entire fight against the Caldor Fire, many of the firefighters were able to find comfort through the outpouring of gratitude from the South Lake Tahoe community.
“It feels great coming back from a shift on Caldor, coming up Ski Run, and seeing all of those people that were hanging out and showing us support as we were coming back to camp every night,” Fogarty said. “I’ve never seen that before in my career, and I’ve been doing this for 16 years. I’ve seen signs and a few people here and there, but nothing like that.”
Fogarty was referring to the large number of people who began to meet the fire crews returning from base lodge after working on the Caldor Fire. Daily, community members would show up at 6:30 p.m., and when the firefighters came in at 7 p.m., would cheer, say thanks, and hold up signs.
“That was special,” Fogarty said.
The support is needed now more than ever as fire seasons begin to drastically change all over the world.
Fogarty explained that after the fire came over Echo Summit, there was a change in mindset among many of the firefighters, who began to realize that a number of the natural barriers that once were assumed to slow down fire progress might not work anymore.
TDFPD Battalion Chief Brandon Brady fought against the Dixie, Tamarack, and Caldor fires before being sent up to Oregon and hasn’t had much time to stop and think about the new reality set before him.
Brady and the rest of the crews on the fire worked 24 hours on and 24 hours off, but even then it felt like there weren’t enough resources to stop working for even a second. In the times when he and his crew were able to bed down, they would be called only an hour or so later due to more spotting activity.
“So, we really ended up spending 60 hours awake fighting the fire,” Brady said. “There were no other resources at the time to replace us and we were going to keep fighting. In my opinion, local resources in the forest for two nights is what saved most of the homes in Christmas Valley.”
But now, after moving to his fourth fire, Brady is staying proactive, not only the response to fires, but the response to firefighter’s mental health.
“Some of our folks had homes immediately threatened, and that really puts a whole new level on it,” Brady said.
To his knowledge, many departments have implemented a version of a mental health diffuser in order to help firefighters work through what they’ve gone through.
“It’s a lot to deal with,” Brady said.