In Part One of my ongoing investigation into the early response to the Caldor Fire, we were introduced to Pioneer Fire District Chief, Mark Matthews. Chief Matthews was one of the first, if not the first, to arrive on scene to the then-small brush fire in the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River drainage. He has over 40 years of experience in firefighting and has led the Pioneer Fire District since 2018.
Matthews worked for 25 years fighting fires in Oregon. In 2014 he was asked to move to Palominas in Conchise County, Arizona to become the department’s chief there. According to Matthews, he was able to “turn around” the Palominos Fire Department by balancing the budget, improving public relations, and streamlining firefighter training. An article in a local newspaper quotes him as being “Very proud of what we have been able to accomplish as a district.”
On January 12, 2017 several 911 calls began coming into Conchise County. All were reporting brush fires in and around Palominas. In one hour, Palominas firefighters were dispatched to five brush fires alone. All of the fires were less than a half acre in size and were quickly extinguished thanks to a light wind and high moister content of the vegetation. Firefighters were immediately suspicious of how the fires may have started. Soon, the Conchise County Sheriff’s Department opened their own investigation in to the Palominas brush fires.
Nine months later on October 16, 2017, Palominas Fire Chief Mark Matthews publicly announces his immediate retirement from the fire district. Matthews tells the community he has been diagnosed with cancer and will be moving home to Oregon to be closer with his family. A spokesperson for the fire district board tells local reporters that Matthews’ retirement has nothing to do with the ongoing suspicious fire investigation.
The following day, a story appears in the local Palominas newspaper confirming the ongoing investigation into possible arson related to the brush fires. In the article, a spokesperson for the Conchise County Sheriff’s Department states that members of the Palominas fire department, including board members, has been interviewed by investigators. A spokesperson for the district also confirms that employees within the fire department and board member are “the subject of” the investigation.
After Chief Matthews resigned in October of 2017 due to his cancer diagnosis, it is unclear what came of the investigation into the suspicious fires. Sources in Conchise County indicate the investigation was closed upon Matthews departure. The Sheriff’s Office and the Palominas fire department have not responded to requests for comment on this story.
Three months after Matthews’ resignation, the Pioneer Fire District Board of Directors meets to discuss the hiring of a new fire chief. A job description, posted that January, is run on job search websites until February 28, 2018. Minutes from the March board meeting indicate a total of 16 applications were received and, of those, four were qualified for an interview. Mark Matthews’ resume was in the original pool of applicants received between January and March, and was one of the four recommended for an interview.
The April, 2018 board of directors meeting finalized the screening process and review committee. Interviews were then scheduled. Minutes from the May 24, 2018 board meeting indicate only two candidates were interviewed on one occasion. The board then voted 3-0 to recommend the hiring of Matthews as the new Pioneer Fire District Chief.
Minutes from the May 24 meeting also indicate that board member Phil Dayton was absent and was thus unable to vote. Dayton has publicly expressed frustration that the vote was held when he was not able to be present.
Over the next year, El Dorado County reporters published profiles of the new Pioneer District Fire Chief. The stories included Matthews’ lengthy history in firefighting. None of the articles mention the suspicious fire investigation. In one local report, Matthews does state he resigned from a previous position due to cancer. He does not discuss what led to his sudden recovery between October, 2017 and January, 2018.
Speaking on the condition of anonymity, sources close to Chief Matthews state that he has never discussed the suspicious fire investigation with them. One source tells me they once asked Matthews about the status of the investigation after reading about it online. According to them, Matthews responded by talking at length about his record as a firefighter but never answered the question. Another source who has known Matthews professionally for years was shocked to learn of the investigation. They expressed particular surprise that the investigation was ongoing just prior to Matthews’ hiring at the Pioneer Fire District.
The Pioneer Fire District Board of Directors have not publicly stated whether they were aware of the suspicious fire investigation in Arizona at the time of hiring Matthews. Just prior to the hiring at least one board member expressed concern about whether Matthews could pass any required physical tests given his condition. There is no follow up in the board minutes on either subject.
In September, 2021 while the Caldor Fire was still raging, several community members attended a Pioneer Fire District Board meeting. Attendees asked about the initial response to the fire and Chief Matthews’ role between August 14-17. Matthews’ discussed how a lack of resources made the protection of Grizzly Flats particularly challenging.
Matthews has not publicly discussed why he requested to be added to what was a forest service call on the evening of August 14 or what led him to arrive at the fire so quickly. He has not yet commented on why he declared forward progress stopped nor what led him to enter into the Dogtown Creek drainage where he subsequently found himself in an extremely dangerous situation. Matthews’ wrote an open letter to the community, which he posted to the Pioneer Fire District Facebook page, where he describes his harrowing ordeal in barely escaping flames in the draining the night of August 16th. Several community members praised Matthews as a hero and thanked him for his service in the post’s comments.
An announcement has been posted for the January 4, 2022 Pioneer Fire District Board of Directors Meeting. The single topic listed on the flier is a discussion on the “Fire Chief Transition” and whether the board should hire a new fire chief, or contract with the Amador Fire District. Community participation is encouraged.
At the time of this writing I have been unable to obtain comment from Mark Matthews for the purposes of this article.