It has been seven months since the Caldor Fire ignited in southern El Dorado County. The Jericho Report has uncovered hundreds of details and published nearly 50 reports on the cause of the fire, the emergency response, and the key players who fought the fire in those early days last August.
Soon, we will be moving into a new phase of the investigation. Before we begin our coverage of the impending Smiths’ trial, as well as our research into other communities effected by the Caldor Fire, let’s recap some of the key details we have learned thus far.
The Caldor Fire
The Caldor Fire began on August 14, 2021 near the convergence of Dogtown Creek and the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River, near Omo Ranch in Ed Dorado County. Over the next several weeks, the Caldor became one of the most destructive wildfires in California history. It first destroyed the community of Grizzly Flats before tearing north, and then east across the county where it became only the second fire in California History to cross the Sierra Nevada. It burned approximately 222,000 acres of stunning landscape and destroyed nearly 800 structures before it was fully contained in late October.
- Officials believe the fire started on the south side of the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes near a swimming hole. The coordinates recorded are 38.5940879, -120.5417461.
- Over the next 24 hours the fire slowly spread south and east along the Middle Fork.
- On August 15 the fire crossed the Middle Fork to the north and east of the point of origin.
- On August 16 fire crept down the ridge to the north where it crossed Dogtown Creek at 6:47 p.m.
- By 11:00 p.m. on August 16 remaining staff at Leoni Meadows Camp were preparing to evacuate. Minutes later the camp’s first buildings would be destroyed.
- Mandatory evacuations for Grizzly Flats began at approximately 11:15 p.m.
- By 2:00 a.m. on August 17, the first homes on the east side of Grizzly Flats were already lost.
The Initial Response
The fire ignited on United States Forest Service land. Eldorado National Forest chiefs served as incident commanders for the majority of the first three days of the fire.
- The first report of the fire occurred at 6:49 p.m. on August 14, 2021 via a 911 call.
- Receiving the call, Camino dispatched forest service resources by 6:52 p.m.
- Due to miscommunication in the 911 call, resources were dispatched to a location approximately six miles northeast of the fire’s actual location.
- Pioneer Fire Protection District Chief Mark Matthews added himself to the call at 6:58 p.m. and arrived on location at 7:15 p.m. As the first to arrive, Matthews became Incident Commander.
- The first helicopter arrived on scene at 7:33 p.m. and soon located the fire.
- The correct location of the fire was given by air attack at 7:40 p.m. Matthews departs the incorrect location and begins the 45 minute drive to the fire’s actual location.
- Retardant and water was dropped on the fire. Matthews called out “forward progress stopped” at 8:03 p.m.
- After locating the fire at the bottom of an impassible logging road, Matthews is the first to arrive at the fire’s edge at 10:40 p.m.
- A battalion chief from Eldorado National Forest arrived on scene at approximately 11:00 p.m. and became Incident Commander.
- Eldorado National Forest would be responsible for incident command until fire reached Grizzly Flats. After, a joint command system was put together with CalFire.
Mark Matthews has been Fire Chief for the Pioneer Fire Protection District since 2018. He was the first to arrive on scene to the Caldor Fire and was the first Indecent Commander on August 14, 2021.
- Matthews previously worked for the Palominas Fire District in Cochise County, Arizona.
- He was the subject of an investigation by the Cochise County Sherriff’s Office for his alleged behavior connected with suspicious fires in 2017.
- Between August and October, 2017 Matthews was investigated by a human resources contractor for allegedly harassing a female employee in Palominas. He was subsequently suspended for 30 days.
- As the Palominas Fire District Board of Directors opened additional investigations into Matthews, he resigned in October 2017. Publicly, Matthews stated that a devastating cancer diagnosis forced the sudden retirement.
- Two and a half months later Matthews applied for the position of Fire Chief in Pioneer and began working there in June of 2018.
- Matthews has accused Christine Holum, a Pioneer Fire Protection District board director, of harassment and creating a hostile work environment.
- Matthews went on medical leave from Pioneer on February 2, 2022. He has been living in Oregon, his home state, since at least February 11. His contract with Pioneer is due to expire at the end of March, 2022.
The Forest Service
Eldorado National Forest chiefs served as incident commanders for the majority of the first three days of the fire. Citing an ongoing investigation, public relations officers within the forest service have been able to share only limited information with The Jericho Report.
- Forest service air craft were attacking the fire by 7:40 p.m. on August 14, 2021. Both water and retardant drops were made that first evening.
- A battalion chief from the forest service was the second person to arrive at the scene on the ground. This person took over incident command from Matthews.
- By all accounts thus far, the forest service did not move resources to the north of Dogtown Creek until late in the evening on August 16. Questions remain on whether this alleged inaction left the communities of Leoni Meadows and Grizzly Flats unnecessarily vulnerable.
- The forest service was responsible for implementing a years-long fuel reduction plan across woodlands to the east and south of Grizzly Flats prior to the Caldor Fire. Known as the Trestle Project, thousands of acres had yet to be completed before the fire began.
David and Travis (Shane) Smith are the only two individuals who have been charged in connection to the Caldor Fire.
- The Smiths were arrested on December 8, 2021 by agents from the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office. They were charged with reckless arson.
- Both men were also charged with possessing illegally-modified weapons which were allegedly discovered by law enforcement in the course of their investigation.
- The Smiths were initially held on a $1 million bond. At a subsequent bond hearing, a judge reduced David’s bond to $25,000 and Shane’s to $50,000. Both men are out and awaiting trial.
- It appears the DA is alleging that the Smiths recklessly fired a weapon or weapons in the area, and thus started the fire. The Jericho Report is working to obtain more details.
- Shane Smith reported the fire via the 911 call at 6:49 p.m. on August 14, 2021.
- A trial date for the two has yet to be scheduled.
As the next phase of this investigation ramps up The Jericho Report is working hard to answer dozens of questions that are still outstanding.
- Why did Matthews call out a forward progress status when he was nowhere near the fire?
- With Matthews’ years-long fight against debilitating disease, did the Pioneer Board of Directors do enough to ensure he was medically fit to fulfil his duties?
- Was Matthews of sound body and mind when he was incident command on the fire?
- Why did the forest service wait so long to move resources north?
- On the first night of the fire, who exactly pulled crews for accountability and what led to the call?
- Why did the evacuation orders for Grizzly Flats come so late?
- Did the dip site limitations placed by the forest service impede pilot’s efforts?
- What led to CalFire’s success in protecting communities like Sly Park?
- As fire crossed Echo Summit into the basin, how exactly was Christmas Valley saved?
- Why were communities along highway 50 left without power for so long?
- What are the hurdles facing Grizzly Flats residents as they attempt to rebuild?
Our research is just getting started. The Jericho Report will continue doing everything we can to get these questions answered, as well as the new questions that arise along the way. Thank you for sharing. And thank you for your support.