In November, 2021 I began working on a big-picture look at the Caldor Fire. I wanted to understand how the fire started and how the forest service responded. I wanted an inside look at who was doing what, when, and where during those first crucial hours following ignition in the Dogtown Creek drainage.
I obtained CalFire dispatch logs. I interviewed firefighters and Sheriff’s deputies who were on the front lines. I scoured social media posts to find the witnesses that were truly there. While my research has led me to cover a wide variety of branching stories, I seemed to come across one name everywhere I looked: Mark Matthews.
It was easy to see why his name appeared every time I turned a page or made another call. Matthews is the Chief of the Pioneer Fire Protection District and was first on scene to the Caldor Fire. He has recounted his harrowing story at district board meetings and public gatherings, and he wrote of his experience in an open letter to the Grizzly Flats community. If I was going to write the story of those early days of the Caldor Fire, it was going to start with the man himself.
Eager to get started on a hero story, I reached out to Chief Matthews in mid-December last year. While waiting to hear back I began basic background research and asked interviewees about their experience with the chief. What I found was strange and surprising. Each layer I peeled back only led to another. By the time the new year passed, I had many more questions for Chief Matthews than I started with.
By January, my interview requests to the chief were becoming more frequent and less focused on the Caldor Fire. My research led me to Palominas, Arizona, where Matthews was the fire chief for several years before he came to Pioneer. I discovered contentious relationships with his staff, many of whom were suspicious of Matthews and wary of his behavior. I found he retired from Palominas suddenly due to a devastating cancer diagnosis, and then applied for the position of fire chief at Pioneer just two months later. Then, I uncovered a summary report from the Cochise County Sherriff’s office detailing an investigation into Matthews and his alleged involvement in several suspicious fires.
I reached out to Matthews again in mid-January in another attempt to gain a response or interview. This time, I included questions about the investigation in Palominas and his subsequent retirement. Minutes later my phone was ringing.
“I am not aware of any investigation. I’ve had multiple conversations about fires I was an investigator on…I am not under investigation for any fires. I never was.” Chief Matthews talks fast. Over the next 82 minutes he would have a lot to say.
Chief Matthews was respectful and polite throughout our conversation, and he made it very clear he was displeased with my line of questioning. He opened our conversation by asking if I invented the Cochise County investigation story in order to get him to finally call me. I assured him I did not, that I have both witnesses and documents, and I wanted to offer him the opportunity to respond to the allegations before I wrote about it.
We then had a tense, but respectful, exchange about my sources. Chief Matthews wanted to know who my sources are because, “We will be coming after them for slander.” I told him that while I never reveal the identity of my sources, I do have a summary report of the investigation into him by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department. He assured me this is not possible because, “I am very close with the Sheriff and he is a good friend of mine.”
Chief Matthews repeatedly stated that was he never under investigation in Arizona, nor was his department. In fact, he had never even heard of such a thing. “I have no idea what you’re talking about,” he repeatedly said.
When I asked about the timing of his resignation, Chief Matthews mentioned an article printed in the Herald Review in which a Palominas Fire District Board Member tells a reporter that Matthews is resigning due to health issues. Matthews told me that, while this board member was disciplined because they were not authorized to speak about his condition, the article makes clear that he resigned due to his health problems. He reiterated that he has never been aware of any investigation into him nor his department.
I asked if the rest of the article, which mentions an ongoing investigation into his department, jogged his memory. We looked at the article and read the following together.
(Palominas Fire District Board Member) Montgomery also confirmed that Palominas Fire District employees and board members are the subject of an investigation by the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department. “We know about it, but at this time it’s an ongoing investigation and we’re still looking at it,” he said.
Carol Capas, spokeswoman for the Cochise County Sheriff’s Department, said the agency is investigating a series of brush fires that occurred earlier this year. She said a sheriff’s detective has interviewed members of the Palominas fire department, including several board members. “At this time, we’re still investigating,” Capas said.
Chief Matthews stated that this excerpt doesn’t jog his memory because the article is about his department working with the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office on a suspicious fire case. The article, he claimed, says nothing of an investigation into the fire department. For the rest of our interview he remained adamant that he doesn’t recall ever hearing of any investigation into him or his department at any time.
I thanked Chief Matthews for doing his best to answer such difficult questions. To be fair, I said, public officials often have to respond to uncomfortable questions and I’m glad he at least had the opportunity to respond. He agreed, and we moved on to discuss the Caldor Fire.
I asked if we could go back to that tragic evening and talk about his experience in those first moments fighting the fire. I wanted to start with where Chief Matthews was the moment he was first dispatched. He responded, “I can’t talk publicly about this fire” because “it’s all under investigation.”
I reminded the chief that he has spoken about his ordeal fighting the Caldor Fire at public board meetings and community gatherings, and that he wrote an open letter to the community of Grizzly Flats detailing a harrowing experience in which he made a recording for his family to tell them how nervous he was for his safety. I asked why he could no longer speak today about his experience with this fire.
“Well, you have my letter. You were at the meetings. I already told everyone what was going on with that fire,” he responded. While we went back and forth on this issue for quite some time, I continued to ask if we could begin with where he was that day when he was dispatched.
Because Chief Matthews speaks so quickly and shifts from topic to topic, it can be challenging to get an exact quote from him. The following are unedited notes I typed in real-time as he began to talk about where he was when the call came in:
“I was on duty somewhere in Pioneer Fire District. You have the documentation. Why are you asking me? I can’t remember. I was at the Willow Station or the Main Station. To the best of my recollection. I believe I was station 31.
“I would have to double check. I want you to understand …emotionally, physically, the trauma…I remember it was in the evening. I don’t remember where I was. The letter explains everything.
“To the best of my recollection….I am fighting some really serious migraines right now….I believe I was at Station 31. I was not in my right…I believe I was in the station. As I was leaving the facility….I got in the vehicle and was sent the location via phone and computer in the vehicle. I was doing all kinds of stuff that day. I was very busy.”
Chief Matthews then recounted the drive out to the fire. He spoke of large potholes on his way to the given location, Leoni and Caldor Roads near North South Road. When he arrived there, he found campers and asked them if they had reported a fire. When they said no, he asked them what they had seen or heard. They had little to say, and he continued on down the road towards the washout. According to Matthews, he then called out over the radio “unable to locate.”
According to CalFire call logs, Matthews was dispatched at 6:58 p.m. on August 14, 2021 and made the “unable to locate” call at 7:22 p.m. I tried to follow up to understand the route Matthews took, but I didn’t receive an answer. Below is a map of the shortest route possible, according to Google Maps, making it the likely route he took that day.
Chief Matthews often speaks publicly about his ill health. He has talked of his cancer diagnosis at Pioneer Board meetings and in interviews with the Mountain Democrat. At a community meeting on September 2, 2021 Chief Matthews briefly spoke about vaccines by saying, “I have a rare disease that they told me if I get the vaccine it will kill me. I got the vaccine anyway. I took that chance.” Similarly, in our interview he brought up his health several times.
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Eventually, I asked if he would like to talk about his cancer diagnosis in October, 2017. I was particularly interested in the two months between his resignation due to cancer and his application at Pioneer. Chief Matthews then asked to go off the record.
After 82 minutes our interview was over. I told him I need some time to follow up on some of the information he shared with me and asked if I could call back with questions and clarification. He welcomed me to do so. I have attempted to follow up with Chief Matthews via phone call, text, and email since our interview but have not yet heard back.
I still had questions about the moment Chief Matthews pronounced “forward progress stopped” across the radio the evening of August 14. According to statements he made at a community gathering in Grizzly Flats last year, Matthews heard from air attack that “they made two initial drops on it and reported they stopped the forward progress on the fire.” Matthews then repeated this information across the radio to dispatch.
“Forward progress stopped” means exactly that: A fire has stopped spreading forward. A firefighter or chief on the ground with eyes on the fire will usually make this call so everyone on the radio knows the status has changed. Often, incoming resources will then be cancelled or reassigned as they are no longer needed. The announcement essentially means the most difficult part of the fight is now over.
In the heat of battle mistakes are made. I have no interest in pointing fingers at these pilots, men and women who risk their lives to save ours and who do an incredible job every day. But I did want to understand what led them to sharing information that was so critically mistaken.
I reached out to CalFire directly with this question and soon received a call from Diana Swart, Public Relations Officer. After some research, Ms. Swart told me her team could not find any record of the pilots declaring forward progress stopped. In fact, she said, “If they had any information of significance like that, they would have reported it directly. There’s no way they would have said that. Especially that early on.”
According to the logs, Chief Matthews called “forward progress stopped” at 8:03 p.m. The logs note he had just received the correct location of the fire 25 minutes earlier and, according to his own account, he was still two hours and 40 minutes away from arriving at the fire. If CalFire is correct that it is exceedingly unlikely the pilots told Chief Matthews that forward progress has been stopped, it is then unclear what information he received led him to make such a call.
While I am still hopeful I will hear back from both the chief and members of the board, requests for comment continue unanswered at the time of this writing.