Early one evening in mid-August, Travis Alvarez and Amanda Serum were changing the oil in their side-by-side ATV. It was an ordinary day. Warm and breezy. The perfect day to fix up their ride and take it for a spin. They had no idea that, in just minutes, Travis would bear witness to the beginning of El Dorado County’s most destructive wildfire. Nor could they have predicted that, days later, a man would approach Amanda with a troubling story in which he claimed his father was responsible for starting the fire.
It was August 14, 2021. They were at their home just off Caldor Road and had invited their friend, David Hall, to stop by for a visit. David gave Travis a hand with the oil change, and they made quick work of a simple job. Wanting to make sure everything was running properly, Travis and David jumped in the side-by-side for a quick drive. Amanda stayed behind at the house.
Heading east along Caldor Road, it wasn’t long before they came upon another side-by-side. This one was stopped in the middle of the road, and a man appeared to flagging Travis down. The Jericho Report has obtained a recording in which Travis, three weeks later, told investigators what happened next on that fateful day.
“We had just come around the corner. There to the left. There was a side-by-side blocking the road. Couple guys standing there. The one guy waved me down to let me know there was a fire. He had just got service on his phone and called it in,” Travis said. Standing in Travis’ driveway were two CalFire investigators. They were aware of Travis Alvarez and David Hall’s location on the 14th and wanted more information on what, and who, they saw.
Travis continued, “We didn’t the gentleman’s names. They were on the other side of the canyon and came around. He let us know there was a fire. He told a group of guys down there that there was a fire.”
Asked by the investigators if he knew where the two men in the stopped side-by-side were coming from, Travis said, “I know the road he took up. It’s a shitty road you go down. We stayed out of there.” One of the men asked Travis if he is referring to 9N60. “Yea, that’s the one,” he says.
On the recording, Travis indicates that his interaction with the two men was brief. He tells investigators that the man who flagged him down, the younger of the two, said he had been trying to call 911 several times without success due to poor cellular coverage. The man’s call was finally connected as Travis and David came upon the stopped side-by-side.
As the man spoke with 911, Travis texted Amanda to tell her about the fire. He told the investigators that he and David then continued in their side-by-side east along Caldor Road. Aware of the fire, they declined to drive down into the canyon. “My dad is a firefighter. He always told me, ‘If you’re in the forest and you see a fire, don’t go near it,'” Travis said. So, they drove past 9N60 towards North South Road before turning around to head home.
The investigators then asked Travis to describe the men he saw. “One gentleman was in his mid-60’s. He had a handlebar mustache tied into his goatee. All grey. Grey hair. Maybe a little dark brown,” Travis said. “The other gentleman was probably in his 40’s. I don’t know. Maybe middle eastern looking. I never seen both of them.” He described the men as wearing casual tee shirts, shorts, and shoes.
As for the side-by-side, Travis told investigators, “It was a newer one. It was a Polaris Razor. I think it was a two-seater. It wasn’t that big. It was normal. Had the fire extinguisher and little shovel on it. It was mostly silver with some red and black.”
One of the investigators produced a photograph of a side-by-side and asked Travis if it looked like the one he saw stopped that day. “Oh yea. That’s pretty much what it looked like. I can’t tell you 100% for sure but, yea,” he said. The investigator asked again if anything stands out in the photo that could make Travis identify it as the side-by-side he saw. He replies, “Nah…nothing really stands out. It’s hard to tell you it was exactly that one. But yea, it’s the same style.”
The investigator then directs Travis to look through six more photographs to see whether he recognizes any of the faces. “No. No I don’t,” Travis said. Pointing to one of the photographs, he tells the agents, “I can tell you he had a mustache like that. But it was cleaner. Like, he detailed it. But no, they don’t look familiar.” Both investigators prompt Travis to look at the photos again, but he reiterates that, other than the mustache, none of the men in the photos look like the men he saw on August 14th.
Notably, the agents asked Travis if he remembers seeing any “recreational equipment” with the men or in the side-by-side. “Nothing that caught my eye,” Travis said. “I didn’t notice anything like that.” Apparently satisfied, the agents concluded their interview with Travis and asked to speak with Amanda, who was in the house at the time. They had questions for her regarding a potentially-critical piece of information shared with her in the days after the fire started. We will dive into Amanda’s story in Part Two.
As we now know, investigators are alleging that the two men Travis ran into that day are David and Shane Smith, the same men accused of recklessly starting the Caldor Fire. Recently, I was able to interview Travis Alvarez about his experience running into the Smiths, as well as his interview weeks later with investigators.
I wanted to know if Travis had suspicions about the Smiths when he first came upon them standing by their side-by-side. “No, no way,” he said. “They were normal. They weren’t panicked. They weren’t covered in soot or anything. I didn’t suspect anything.”
Travis told me that, even when investigators were asking him about the Smiths, Travis still didn’t realize the agents viewed them as suspects. “I remember them showing me those photos. Like, why are they showing me a lineup? I thought it was so weird. These are the guys that called it in. The guys that warned us. I was like why are they asking me to identify them all the sudden,” Travis said.
It wasn’t until the Smiths’ arrests were announced the following December did Travis realize that investigators were pointing their finger at the two men. “I couldn’t believe it. I saw their photos in the story. It was them. It was the same guys I saw that day,” he said.”
“Shane, the younger one, he must have called 911 four or five times. He’d call and it was dropped. Call and dropped. Probably five times before his call finally went through. I mean, he was really trying to report it,” Travis told me. “It’s just so weird that they think these are the guys who did it.”
Travis told me that David Hall, who was with him when they were driving down Caldor that day, was also surprised at the investigators’ interest in the Smiths. “I remember David called me and was like, ‘These agents were just here and showed me a lineup asking me if I recognized those guys. Weird, right?’ Like, David was was really surprised, too,” Travis said.
Travis recounted with me much of what he told the investigators. He said he didn’t see any weapons on either of them or in the side-by-side, he didn’t note anything unusual about either of the Smiths, and he had no reason to be suspicious of the Smiths’ behavior at the time. “Everyone around here knows how fires spread,” he told me. “That’s all they were worried about it, too. They were just trying to get it reported.”
Two days after running into the Smiths, Travis and Amanda were ordered to evacuate from their home. At the time, John D’Agostini, the Sheriff of El Dorado County, was welcoming evacuees to camp on his land. They joined dozens of other evacuees, set up a tent, and waited to see what would come next.
It was during this time that Travis spoke with his father about his experience on August 14th. According to Travis, his dad urged him to reach out to authorities. “As a firefighter, you know, he told me that even if I thought I didn’t really have anything important to say, and I didn’t think I did, the investigators might think it’s important anyway,” Travis said. Travis agreed, which led to a phone call from CalFire investigator, Eric Fiedler, and the subsequent interview with the two agents days later in Travis’ driveway.
After Travis’ phone call with Fiedler, Amanda wondered aloud if maybe she should have shared what she herself had recently witnessed. For days, Travis and Amanda had been talking about an encounter she had with an old friend in a Walmart parking lot. They had been questioning whether they should share what this friend told Amanda. Recalling his fathers’ words, Travis urged Amanda to tell investigators what she had been told.
Amanda called Fiedler back. “I should probably tell you,” she began, “My friend told me he knows who started the Caldor Fire. It was his dad. And he said he started the Cosumnes Mine fire, too.”
Amanda’s story continues in Part Two.
David Hall and Eric Fiedler did not respond to requests for comment for this story.
Header Photo Credit: Fox40