The Jericho Report has obtained a supplemental investigative report written by Erik Fiedler, a CalFire captain and investigator. The report, written on August 23rd, 2021 reveals Fiedler was concerned about Pioneer Fire Protection District Chief Mark Matthews’ possible connection to allegedly-suspicious spot fires on August 15th, one day after the Caldor Fire began.
Mathews was the first firefighter on scene to the Caldor Fire and was the first incident commander on August 14, 2021. He is currently on medical leave and is reported to be now living in Oregon. His contract at Pioneer is due to expire at the end of March if it is not renewed.
In the course of my research into the Caldor Fire, Fiedler’s name has come up several times. Now that TJR has obtained reports written by Fiedler, I can reveal that CalFire has been suspicious of Matthews’ history and behavior for several years.
In the Summer of 2018, Matthews worked the Carr Fire as part of a statewide response by CalFire. The Carr Fire burned more than a quarter million acres of land in Shasta and Trinity counties and killed six people, including two firefighters. It was the seventh most destructive wildfire in California history.
According to two separate CalFire investigators, Matthews was found to have allegedly launched a backburn operation on the Carr Fire that was “unauthorized and dangerous.” CalFire firing operations guidelines detail a lengthy set of rules firefighters must abide by when conducting backburns, and all firing operations must be approved and monitored by a qualified supervisor. Both CalFire investigators claim Matthews “went rogue” and began a firing operation on his own. This backburn then grew out of control and required the response of additional resources, according to these sources. This incident, they believe, is what first led Fiedler to begin looking into Mathews’ background and qualifications.
In August of 2018 several current and former employees of Pioneer Fire Protection District received phone calls from Fiedler. According to them, Fiedler was interested in whether these employees were aware of Matthews background in Arizona, where he was once under investigation for his alleged connection to suspicious fires. One source told me that Fielder seemed “alarmed” that the district was seemingly unaware of this investigation.
Two more former employees of Pioneer tell me that they were contacted as late as early 2020 by “an investigator from CalFire” who was asking questions about Matthews. Both tell me the investigator asked if they ever witnessed suspicious behavior by Matthews. Neither were comfortable telling me what information they shared with the investigator.
On August 20th, 2021 Fiedler interviewed Matthews “to get an idea of what he saw when he was at the fire,” according to a supplementary investigative. In addition to the interview, Matthews also submitted a written statement about his experience arriving at the fire on August 14th.
Fiedler’s summary, and Matthews’ attached written statement, describe what Matthews saw and the actions he took when he arrived at the fire at approximately 10:40 p.m on the 14th. According to Matthews, he found a 3-5 acre fire burning at the bottom of logging road 8N55C. With no one else having yet arrived and the logging road impassible due to fallen trees, Matthews hiked down the gravel path alone.
At the bottom of the road, Matthews states that he found fresh ATV tracks in the pink retardant dropped earlier. He followed these tracks to an area he identified as the fire’s point of origin due to what he saw from the burn patterns. Here, he found footprints, disturbed ground, and firearm casings. Matthews wrote:
At this area just before a small trail leading up up the left flank/slope of the fire (near the river/creek) where [sic] several fire arm casings. These casings appeared to be freshly used (clean outer casing without any oxidation or degradation). I picked up one 9mm casing and smelled the inside of the casing and it appeared to me to have the fresh smell of burnt gun powder. I returned it to its location and turned to see what appeared to be an area of shoe/boot type food [sic] prints with disturbed ground (I did not see anyone in the area prior to my arrival). Looking through this immediate area, it appeared that the fire Point of Origin could be directly in front of the spent casing and the foot prints…
–Mark Matthews, Incident Report August 18, 2021
Matthews then began wrapping caution tape around the area to flag the location and protect the origin and evidence. Soon, Matthews felt that he was becoming “trapped” by the fire so he left. In his summary, Fiedler reports that the information Matthews shared in his August 20th interview as well has written statement from August 18th were “similar.”
However, The Jericho Report has obtained another statement written by Matthews, this one dated August 19th, 2021. In this report, Matthews writes that he located the fire at 10:05 p.m. at the bottom of 8N55C and began “cutting debris and vegetation” so his vehicle could gain access. He does not mention hiking down the road, the ATV tracks, the 9mm casings, or the point of origin. The August 19th statement is much longer than the one he signed the previous day and goes into much more detail on the description of both the fire’s location as well as its behavior.
Only the August 18th statement written by Matthews is attached to Fielder’s supplementary report. The August 19th statement is not mentioned.
Also attached to Fielder’s report is a description of an encounter he had with a CalFire captain two days after interviewing Matthews. According to the report, on August 22, 2021 Fiedler was driving to Leoni Meadows for follow up work on the Caldor Fire when he passed Charlie Blankenheim on Grizzly Flat road. Blankenheim is another captain for CalFire. Fiedler called Blankenheim and asked to stop and talk. Fiedler wrote:
I turned around and met him (Blankenheim) a little way down the road. I wanted to speak with him because there were reports that there were spot fires on August 15th that were not consistent with the fire behavior. With the alleged history of Chief Mark Matthews of Pioneer Fire Department, and with him relaying to resources about how to access the spot fires without being there, and reporting spot fires, there was concern the spot fires could be arson.
Erik Fiedler, Excerpt from Supplementary Investigative Report August 23, 2021
According to Fiedler, he then showed Blankenheim the Incident Action Plan (IAP) map from August 16, 2021 and asked him if believes the spot fires were suspicious. Blankenheim responded that the IAP map was not an accurate depiction of the spot fires and the fire behavior that day was much more intense than previously believed. He went on to tell Fiedler that he believed all of the spot fires reported throughout the day on August 16th were not suspicious in nature.
The report does not note whether Blankenheim also responded to Fiedler’s questions about the August 15th spot fires. However, Fiedler notes that, “After speaking with Blankenheim, and observing all information available to me, I believe Matthews was not responsible for the spot fires or the cause of the Caldor Fire.” In the excerpts obtained by The Jericho Report, Fiedler does not detail the information he reviewed that led him to this conclusion.
After reviewing Fiedler’s reports I reached back out to my sources in CalFire to gain an understanding of what specifically Fiedler may have been concerned about regarding the August 15th spot fires. They tell me there was little concern that Matthews intentionally started “spot fires” in an effort to cause destruction or hamper firefighting efforts. Rather, they say, Fiedler was likely concerned that Matthews had again “gone rogue” and began a firing operation on his own that then got out of control. These concerns may stem from accusations of Matthews conducting unsafe backburns in Arizona, as well as the alleged firing operation he conducted on the Carr Fire.
However, of the five individuals who interacted with Matthews on August 14th and 15th that I have been able to interview, none saw him conduct any firing operations. Buck Minitch, who was contracted for seasonal-type work with Pioneer at the time was fighting the Caldor alongside Matthews as the fire spread across Dogtown Creek towards Leoni. In a recent interview, Minitch dismissed any suggestion that Matthews may have been conducting improper firing operations. He told me he was with Matthews the entire time and never saw anything improper. “There wasn’t even time for something like that,” he said.
Lloyd Ogan, a retired firefighter with over 30 years experience, was also at Leoni Meadows on August 16th. According to him, Matthews stated to Ogan and several other individuals that he would conduct a firing operation if the Caldor Fire began threatening Leoni Meadows’ property. Ogan expressed surprise by this and wondered if Matthews had been given such authorization given that no resources, other than Matthews himself, were in this area north of Dogtown. Still, in our interview Ogan made clear that he also never saw Matthews conduct any firing operations.
I will have more from my interviews with Ogan and Minitch in futures posts.
Sources familiar with the El Dorado County Sherriff’s department indicate that investigators there are confident Matthews had nothing to do with the start of the Caldor Fire. However, these same sources report that investigators are now looking into the allegedly-suspicious spot fires in the Leoni Meadows area. Two individuals confirm that deputies recently contacted them to ask whether they saw Matthews backburning between August 14-16.
It is unclear what has prompted recent suspicion into Matthews’ alleged connection to the spot fires. As his report states, Fiedler was confident in late August last year that the spot fires were a natural progression of the Caldor Fire and Matthews had nothing to do with them. I have reached out to Fiedler about whether the questions he was asking of Matthews’ associates back in 2018 were ever satisfactorily answered, and what exactly led him to conclude there was no longer any suspicion of Matthews’ behavior around the Caldor Fire. He has not responded.
Aspects of this story are still developing and will be published in future posts.