“I have the GPS coordinates of roughly where it is.” The time is 6:52 p.m. on August 14, 2021. Travis (Shane) Smith is connected to Camino dispatch after calling 911 to report a fire in the Dogtown Creek area of the Eldorado National Forest. With poor reception and heavy background noise the agent is having a difficult time understanding what Shane is trying to say. What happens next will cause a critical delay in fighting what would turn out to be one of the most destructive wildfires in California history.
Just days after the 911 call, as the fire was still pushing across the county, investigators were zeroing in on David and Shane Smith. Based on witness statements who claim to have seen the Smiths near the fire’s origin, law enforcement obtained search warrants on the Smiths’ properties (more on these search warrants in future posts). As part of their investigation, the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office requested that the GPS data from the Smiths’ all-terrain vehicle be analyzed to determine their location around the time the fire allegedly began.
The Jericho Report has obtained a copy of the DA’s GPS analysis. According to the documents, the Smiths left David’s property in Somerset, California, at 4:49 p.m on August 14, 2021. They travelled in an all-terrain side-by-side from Rocky Bar Road, through Grizzly Flat Road, eventually down Caldor Road heading east. According to the analysis, they arrived in what the DA is calling the “general area of origin” (GOA) at 6:11 p.m. In the image below, “A” represents the GOA and location of the Smiths’ arrival in the DA’s version of events:
A closer look:
It should be noted that the DA’s version of the general area of origin differs slightly from CalFire’s location as presented in call logs and incident reports. CalFire’s coordinates of the fire are represented as “B”, below:
According to the DA’s analysis, the Smiths were in the GOA for approximately 20 minutes. The report states that the ATV “remained within 60-100” feet of the GOA during this time. The Smiths then exit the GOA at 6:31 p.m. and head north. At 6:45 p.m. the two men stop on Caldor Road to call 911. The report indicates the 911 call was made from the location represented by “C,” below:
When Shane calls 911 he is first connected with California Highway Patrol. He tells the agent he spotted a wildfire not far from Grizzly Flats. CHP then connects Shane to Camino, the dispatch center for calls related to wildfires. The Camino operator immediately asks for the location of the fire, and Shane responds by reading GPS coordinates he apparently saved in his phone. While the recording is somewhat difficult to hear due to poor cell phone reception, I was able to write down the GPS coordinates Shane gave the operator after listening to this part of the conversation twice. These GPS coordinates are represented as “D,” below:
However, the operator does not hear Shane clearly. As he finishes reading the coordinates, the operator says, “Those GPS coordinates put you in Calaveras County, sir. Let’s try that again.” Before Shane can read the coordinates again the operator asks, “You’re in Grizzly Flats, correct?” This crucial moment will soon lead to confusion among responding fire personnel for several hours:
Operator: “You’re in Grizzly Flats, correct?”
Shane: “Yea we’re in Grizzly Flats down a road called Caldor.”
Operator: “Okay and how far down Caldor are you?”
Shane: Sounding unsure, “Umm, probably like five miles.”
Operator: “Are you on Caldor or are you on Grizzly Caldor? Or are you down by Leoni?”
Shane: “You know what? Kind of by Leoni. It looks like Dogtown Creek. You go down to the bottom. There’s a couple people camping down there. We let them know we saw this, too. There’s a creek right there. And the fire is on the other side of the creek by this campground.”
The operator goes on to ask how large the fire is and how long ago did Shane see it. Shane says he saw the fire about “10 or 15 minutes ago” and another male, presumably David, can be heard in the background saying, “It was more like 30 minutes.” The audio cuts in and out as Shane describes the fire as being 40 by 20 feet. The operator asks him to stay on the line as she begins to dispatch crews. The time is now 6:54 p.m.
Unfortunately, this exchange leads the operator to record the fire’s location as being Leoni Road at Caldor Road, nearly 6 miles away from the GPS coordinates Shane read at the beginning of the call. The incorrect location is represented by “E,” below:
All responding units are then given this incorrect location. Records show firefighters on the ground head to Caldor and Leoni Roads, near North South Road, immediately. At least one helicopter departs from Pollock Pines and circles the area until 7:40 p.m. No one can find the fire, which has now been burning for over an hour six miles to the west. I will have more on how this miscommunication effected the initial response to the fire in future blog posts.
The 911 call ends at 6:54 p.m. According to the DA’s analysis of the GPS data, the Smiths then depart the area, heading northwest along Caldor Road towards Grizzly Flat Road. From their, the Smiths take roughly the same route home as they did coming in.