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  • Opinion: Caldor Fire Investigators Should Have Questioned Matthews, Freeman

    Opinion: Caldor Fire Investigators Should Have Questioned Matthews, Freeman

    In the Fall of 2021, The Caldor Fire devastated the lives of thousands across El Dorado County. Many lost their homes, their jobs, their livelihoods. Many more lost their cherished landscape, the pristine nature that brought them here in the first place.

    And now, the trauma continues. Families are struggling with the cost to rebuild. Some wonder if it’s worth it to rebuild at all. There’s building permits and land surveys and endless battles with insurance companies. Many residents are sorting through these mountains of paperwork while sorting through their own emotional loss and exhaustion.

    For some, the struggles faced today are too much to consider who is responsible for the disaster and whether officials conducted a thorough investigation. They are, understandably, focused on putting one foot in front of the other. They are focused on how today’s phone call will go with their insurance agent. They are focused on healing.

    For others, the process for healing requires answers and explanation. While they may be able to physically move forward, physically rebuild, emotionally they want to understand what happened, and why. In order to fully heal, these residents must know, who did this?

    The El Dorado County District Attorney says the answer is simple: David and Travis (Shane) Smith recklessly started the Caldor Fire on August 14, 2021 near the convergence of Dogtown Creek and the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River. In court documents, investigators say witnesses saw the Smiths near the fire’s origin around the time the fire began, and GPS data places them in the same area at the same time. Furthermore, ear plugs containing Shane’s DNA were recovered from the scene.

    The Smiths and their attorneys, however, say none of this is in dispute. Both sides agree the Smiths were driving their ATV in the Dogtown area that day. Both agree Shane Smith called 911 to report a wildfire. Both agree the Smiths warned others in the area that a fire was growing down in the canyon. So, the Smiths’ lawyers contend, it makes sense both GPS data and witnesses place them in the area of the fire’s origin, and items with Shane’s DNA were later found at the scene.

    In filings for a $1 million dollar bail request for each man, the DA cites text messages and social media posts that depict the Smiths as firearm enthusiasts, with Shane having a “general lack of concern for proper firearms safety.” The request also mentions bullet casings found near the fire’s general area of origin, suggesting the fire may have been started by shooting.

    The DA’s filing does not specifically tie the bullet casings to the Smiths, only that “several bullet casings that appeared to have been recently discharged” were recovered near the scene. According to the Smiths’ attorneys, forensic testing did not indicate a match between the casings and any of the firearms seized by investigators. In fact, they say, they do not yet know what the DA’s theory is for how exactly the fire started.

    After reviewing the DA’s filing and listening to arguments, a judge reduced bail from $1 million to $50,000 for Shane, and from $1 million to $25,000 for David. While further evidence was not presented to argue for the higher bail, this doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. Even the Smiths’ attorneys concede that the discovery process is not complete and they can’t state with absolute certainty what the DA may, or may not, have.

    For now it appears the DA has “proven” the Smiths were there that day, that they called 911, that they own firearms, and that Shane may have been irresponsible with at least one gun in his recent past. For the residents seeking answers as part of their healing process, they wonder if the DA’s evidence will be enough to secure a conviction at trial. If not, the questions then turn to the investigators: Was the process thorough? Were all possible suspects questioned, and properly eliminated, before the Smiths were accused?

    Through months of my own research we have learned a lot about the Smiths and the DA’s allegations against them. We have also learned much about former Pioneer Fire Protection District Mark Matthews, first on scene to the Caldor Fire.

    We now know Matthews has a troubled history stretching through California, Arizona, and Oregon. We know his own staff has accused him of everything from unsafe training practices to arson. We know he was investigated in Cochise County for his alleged connection to several suspicious fires, and that he suddenly left that county before the investigation was completed. We know a Sheriff investigator labeled Matthews’ management practices as “dangerous.” We know he was found in violation of at least 13 district policies and procedures just two and a half months before leaving Arizona and applying for the position of Fire Chief in Pioneer. We know that, as early as 2018, at least one CalFire arson investigator was looking into Matthews’ background and expressed suspicion of Matthews’ behavior.

    None of this is to say Matthews started the Caldor Fire. However, given his questionable background and his record of arriving first on scene to many suspicious fires, including the Caldor Fire, it is reasonable to ask if he was properly eliminated as a suspect. Did investigators ask where he was when the fire started? Did Matthews offer his phone and GPS records to agents to assist in their investigation?

    In interview reports from August and September, 2021, it appears Matthews was only asked to describe the location of what appeared to him to be the fire’s point of origin. This was done, according to the interviewer, to assist agents in accessing the difficult terrain. There is no suggestion Matthews was ever questioned by officials again. In an interview this past January, Matthews himself confirmed that agents had no further questions for him.

    And while investigators zeroed in on the Smiths’ 911 call and social media posts, it appears Matthews isn’t the only individual they looked past. In the weeks following the fire, Andy Freeman told friends that his father, Billy, started the Caldor Fire. The comments were recorded in an interview by investigators last September.

    Corroborating the story are Billy’s own friends and family who state he was missing at the time the fire began. Andy states that Billy discussed being the “number one suspect” in starting the Caldor Fire. Further, and by his own admission, Billy himself was cited by forest officials for multiple illegal fire rings and burn pits in the months before the fire began.

    Yet, according to Billy, no investigator or law enforcement agent has ever spoken to Billy about anything related to the Caldor Fire. My own sources close to the investigation were unable to find indications that such an interview ever took place. And finally, the Smiths’ attorneys say they haven’t come across any mention of any interaction between investigators and Billy Freeman in the discovery process thus far.

    Again, none of this is to say that Matthews or Freeman are responsible for starting the Caldor Fire. Instead, as I share my opinion here my questions are directed at investigators. If these men’s assertions are accurate, what led to the decision to not question them? What convinced agents that there was no need to interview either man about his whereabouts that day?

    Of course, one possibility is that, in those early days of the investigation, agents already had irrefutable evidence that the Smith’s started the fire and, as such, there was no need to look at any other possibility. This would also necessitate that the DA chose to not include such evidence in their failed, million-dollar bail request.

    We can be hopeful that investigators have the right suspects and evidence to prove to a jury, beyond a reasonable doubt, that David and Shane Smith are responsible for starting the Caldor Fire. But, it’s my opinion, that we should also be prepared for a different outcome. What if the evidence in this case is so lacking that the Smiths case never makes it to trial? What if they are found not guilty? If the results of this investigation are so unclear, what does that mean for the healing process of so many fire victims across this county?

    If the latter is the case, investigators should be prepared to answer questions about the Smiths, Mark Matthews, Billy Freeman, and who actually started this fire. While this county doesn’t receive much media attention nationally, or even statewide, the voice of wildfire survivors should never be underestimated. When clear answers aren’t offered, sometimes the questions grow loud enough to shift that media spotlight.

    We have seen it in other communities across California devastated by wildfire, and there’s no reason to suggest it would be any different here.

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  • Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part Three – Billy’s Story

    Part One of this story introduced us to Travis Alvarez, who shared his story of meeting the Smiths moments after the Caldor Fire began. In Part Two we met Travis’ girlfriend, Amanda Serum, who recounted her run in with an old friend named Andy who told her his father, Billy Freeman, started the fire. Her story was disturbingly specific and appears, at least in part, to have been corroborated by several people close to the Freemans.

    William “Billy” Freeman is an El Dorado County native. Friends and family describe him as kind, gentle, and quiet. They also paint a picture of a man suffering from debilitating drug addiction. While still possessing a good heart, they say, drugs have slowly caused Billy to lose nearly everything. He is estranged from much of his family and his mental and physical health have declined, according to several close friends.

    For several years, Billy has been living between a makeshift cabin near a Happy Valley ranch and a tent he keeps next to the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River. To make ends meet, he does odd jobs for area ranch owners and pans for gold in the Cosumnes. I’m told he occasionally stays the night in a friend’s home in the Omo Ranch area when he is particularly hungry or the weather is bad.

    I am told Billy doesn’t have the ability to charge his cell phone consistently and, even when does, the coverage in his area is spotty. It took weeks of texts, phone calls, and local contacts physically travelling to his camp before I was able to connect with Billy. Our first interaction took place through Facebook Messenger.

    I asked Billy if he could broadly share his experience in the first days of the Caldor Fire. He remembers being aware of a fire to the east, but not realizing how serious the situation was until the night “the sky was glowing red over Grizzly Flats.” The following day, Billy decided to stay and help protect the ranch despite being ordered to evacuate. He recalls working alongside CalFire ground crews as flames came within 200 feet of his cabin.

    I told Billy his story was interesting and asked if we could continue the interview by phone. He agreed, and said he would have a better signal in just a few hours when he would be in Pleasant Valley to run errands. We set up the phone call 2:00 p.m. that day. Billy then continued to message me about his experience as the fire reached the Happy Valley area the week after the fire began.

    I again asked if he could also tell me about his experience the first days of the fire, August 14th and 15th, as it grew out of the Middle Fork and Dogtown Creek convergence. At this point, Billy stopped responding and I assumed he was on his way to Pleasant Valley. But 2:00 p.m. came and went. Billy didn’t answer my calls or texts that day, or any of the following days. Eventually I chose the aggressive route and left messages for Billy stating that his family has accused him of starting the Caldor Fire and I’d like to offer him the chance to respond before I publish the story. He didn’t reply.

    It was time to move on. The story was turning into several articles and I needed to start writing. I published the first part of the story and then interviewed Andy Freeman. A week later I published Andy and Amanda’s story, detailing the accusations against Billy which Amanda had shared with USFS investigators. My phone was ringing the next morning.

    It was Billy.

    “I read your stories. I am just shocked. I had nothing to do with this fire. I’m not gonna stoop to my son’s level. He’s just a story teller. Always has been,” Billy said. Despite his shock, he was polite and patient throughout our interview. He made clear he was frustrated by the accusations but his demeanor was consistently calm and relaxed.

    After assuring him I would accurately share his side of the story, I asked Billy if there were any truthful pieces of Andy’s account which may have have been misconstrued or exaggerated. “Just one,” he said.

    A year before the fire, Billy was cited for at least eight illegal campfire pits in the area he pans for gold south of Happy Valley. According to Billy, though, he was simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. He said he happened to be there picking up trash when he ran into a USFS official. “I guess because I was near a bunch of fire pits they cited me. They weren’t mine. They weren’t even burning,” Billy told me.

    He went on to say the fines for the citations totaled $1,800, but he never paid. “That was a year ago. I never heard anything about it. Never got a court date. I guess I wasn’t charged, so I just didn’t pay,” he said. Billy believes it may have been these citations which led Andy to tell others that Billy has a “history” of illegal campfires. Other than this, he claims, there is no truth to anything else Andy told Amanda and others, myself included.

    I asked Billy why his friends would have contacted his family to report him missing if he wasn’t missing at all. “I have no idea. I wasn’t missing. I was up here fighting the fire the whole time,” he said. He told me that bulldozers, which were cutting fire lines in the area, had knocked over a telephone pole which removed power and internet access for him and others in the area. Because of this, he said, his family “probably thought I was missing because I couldn’t message or call anyone for awhile.”

    I reminded Billy that flames hadn’t tore through Grizzly flats until August 17th, and fire lines weren’t cut in the Happy Valley area until much later. So, why did his friends call his family on August 17th to say they hadn’t seen him “in days?” Where was he between August 14th and 16th?

    Billy then told me that on August 14th, he was with a friend’s son camping along the Middle Fork approximately 5-7 miles west of the where the Caldor Fire began. “I was nowhere near there. I haven’t been down to Dogtown Creek or anywhere around there in three years,” he told me.

    I asked Billy for the names of the friend and the friend’s son. He was hesitant. I explained that if these friends could verify that he was nowhere near the start of the fire on August 14th I would publish it as quickly as possible. He eventually shared one of the friends’ names and told me he would have them call me after we hung up.

    I never received a phone call from Billy’s friends. I reached out to them but they did not respond. In the days following our interview I called and texted Billy, urging him to set up a phone call so I could verify his location on the 14th. He didn’t reply.

    In our interview, Billy also told me he doesn’t own a quad and he doesn’t know why so many people told me he did. “I never even drove a quad,” he said. He was unable to explain why his friends reported him “last seen on his quad” before they called his family to say he was missing. He also doesn’t understand why his family states that a sheriff’s deputy told them that Billy was spotted on his quad on August 18th, which is why law enforcement didn’t proceed with a missing person investigation.

    Billy told me he didn’t know he was reported missing until he saw social media posts weeks later after his internet access was restored. He gave me consent to read some of his messages during that time period. One of them was from his mother, who was expressing concern for his safety after being told he was missing. He responded that he was safe and near the Happy Valley Ranch. Both messages was dated August 18th, 2021. I asked about the discrepancy and Billy responded that he must have been confused on the days.

    I asked Billy if any investigators or law enforcement ever spoke with him about the Caldor Fire. “No, no one. Nobody came looking for me. No one interviewed me,” he replied. I questioned if he was ever aware that USDA agents went to his sister and mother’s home looking for him. “My mom said they went there to tell her I was found and okay. Nothing about the Caldor Fire,” Billy said.

    Sources close to the investigation into the Smiths tell me that they believe Billy was indeed never questioned about the Caldor Fire nor Andy’s allegations, because no such report exists. Andy has told me previously he also was never questioned, and Amanda confirmed to me that no agent followed up with her after their initial interview.

    Towards the end of our interview I went through Amanda’s story and Andy’s allegations again, asking Billy for any final thoughts. He said that Andy was lying “because he has something personal against me. My family is just lying, too. I wasn’t missing. They knew how to get ahold of me they just chose not to.” I asked one last time about Billy’s sister and the card left behind by USDA agents. “She isn’t being honest either. Like my mom said, those agents were just there to say I was okay,” he said.

    As we wrapped up, I thanked Billy for his time and asked if I could follow up with additional questions in the coming days. He welcomed me to do so.

    Despite numerous attempts, I never heard from Billy Freeman again.

    This story will be updated if the friends purportedly with Billy Freeman on August 14th return my requests for comment.

  • Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part Two – Amanda’s Story

    Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part Two – Amanda’s Story

    Travis Alvarez and Amanda Serum were at their home working on their side-by-side ATV on August 14, 2021. In minutes, Travis would test his repairs by driving down Caldor Road where he would encounter David and Shane Smith. The Smiths, who stand accused of recklessly starting the Caldor Fire, were in the process of calling 911 to report the flames when Travis came upon them that Saturday.

    In the coming days Travis and Amanda’s lives would be turned upside down. Like so many across El Dorado County, they feared for their home, their family, and their livelihood. After leaving their house they first stayed with family and friends before they were forced to evacuate a second and third time as the fire grew. Eventually, Travis and Amanda found themselves tent camping on the property of Sheriff D’Agostini who had opened his land to evacuees.

    It was while camping at the D’Agostinis that Travis and Amanda made a trip to Walmart to stock up on food and supplies. Walmart, too, had become a refuge of sorts for local evacuees looking for a place to pitch a tent, one of whom was an old friend of Amanda’s named Andy Freeman.

    As Travis and Amanda were leaving Walmart, Andy called out to them. Travis continued on to the truck and waited while Amanda walked over to catch up with the friend she hadn’t seen in years. According to Travis, Andy appeared animated while Amanda looked surprised at what she was hearing. “Amanda looked shocked. It was obvious he was telling her something crazy. And when she got back in the truck she literally said, ‘I just heard the craziest shit in my life,’” Travis told me.

    According to Amanda, her conversation with Andy opened with typical pleasantries shared between two people who haven’t seen each other in years. “I remember we just kind of asked how each other was. I said something like, ‘This is all so crazy,’ you know, talking about the evacuations. That’s when he said, ‘You want to really here something crazy?’ And that was it. He just started telling me this insane story about his dad, Billy,” Amanda told me.

    According to friends, Billy Freeman is a local native who lives in a tent or makeshift cabin on land owned by a rancher in Happy Valley. He is known to drift across the county, camping near rivers and panning for gold. He is said to struggle with addiction issues and is estranged from some of his family.

    Amanda recalls Andy telling her that his dad, Billy Freeman, had been missing for several days and family and friends were worried Billy was hurt or killed in the fire. However, according to Andy, Billy suddenly turned up and told Andy he was “hiding from the feds because he started the Caldor Fire.”

    Shocked, Amanda asked Andy to clarify what he was saying. He explained that his dad was at a campsite in Dogtown Creek the afternoon of Saturday, August 14 where he started a “campfire and was doing drugs,” according to Amanda. Andy said that his dad “nodded off” and when he woke up, the campfire had spread and the surrounding trees and brush were ablaze.

    Andy told Amanda that Billy then panicked, jumped on his quad, and took off. Over the next several days, Billy camped in various locations around the county in order to avoid investigators. When he finally turned up, Billy told Andy this entire story and claimed he started the Caldor Fire, according to Andy.

    Andy also told Amanda that Billy has a history of starting unsafe campfires, some of which spread out of control. Andy claimed that Billy has been cited by law enforcement several times for illegal campfires, including one in the Cosumnes Mine area.

    After her encounter with Andy, Amanda was so alarmed that she shared the story with the D’Agostinis who then contacted CalFire investigators. Eventually, the two investigators who interviewed Travis about his encounter with the Smiths also interviewed Amanda about her encounter with Andy Freeman.

    I was able to obtain a recording of Amanda’s interview with the two investigators. In it, she clearly recounts the story Andy shared with her much as she recounted it with me. Towards the end of the recording, the investigators ask Amanda if she would be willing to share their contact information with Andy and encourage him to call their office. Amanda responds by reminding the agents that she isn’t in regular contact with Andy but would try to reach him on Facebook.

    When I first stumbled upon this story, Andy Freeman was incarcerated and I was unable to ask him to confirm or deny Amanda’s account of what he told her that day in the Walmart parking lot. Instead, I began contacting family and friends of both Andy and Billy to see if they had information to share.

    Everyone I spoke with recall that Billy was indeed missing. Andy’s aunt shared with me a family text dated August 17th, 2021 stating Billy had been missing “for days.” Billy’s niece remembers a family member calling her to say, “Billy’s neighbor on the ranch hasn’t seen him for days and thinks he went missing in the fire.” This phone call also took place on the 17th. Billy’s mother called his sister on the morning of August 18th to tell her Billy has been missing. The same sister then took to Twitter to plead with her followers to keep an eye out for her missing brother:

    According to the family members, Billy’s mother called the El Dorado County Sheriff to report Billy missing. However, later on August 18th, just hours after the news began spreading on social media, a sheriff’s deputy contacted family to report that Billy was no longer missing. According to the deputy, Billy had been seen driving his quad early on the 18th and the missing person report could be closed.

    After Billy was found, no one I interviewed from the family was told where Billy had been while missing. Two family members claim they asked Billy and he “avoided the question and started talking about something else.” Another told me they messaged Billy on Facebook and he “read the message but didn’t reply.”

    I also spoke with a county resident who has been close friends with Billy for nearly 20 years. She recalls seeing Facebook and Twitter posts about Billy’s disappearance. “Given everything that was happening at that time, I thought he was dead. It was terrible,” she told me. After Billy turned up, she texted him to ask what happened. She said, “He just totally avoided the question. He told me he was up there on the ranch fighting the fire but didn’t say where he had been. I guess he didn’t want to talk about it. I was just glad he was okay.”

    After weeks of interviews with Billy’s family and friends, a source contacted me to say Andy was being released from the county jail. Billy’s sister put me in contact with Andy and I immediately set up an interview.

    “Look, I know you’re asking about my dad and the fire. What is it you want to know?” I didn’t have the chance to introduce myself before Andy Freeman was talking.

    I wasn’t surprised Andy was already aware that I was investigating his father’s alleged connection to the Caldor Fire. I had spoken with what was probably half of his family by then and likely messaged the other half on Facebook and Twitter. What did surprise me, however, was his eagerness to talk about his dad.

    I asked Andy to explain why people were telling investigators that he believes his father started the Caldor Fire. He told me that he never explicitly told anyone that Billy started the fire. However, he does remember talking about Billy with friends in the Walmart parking lot. “Yea I was talking with my homies. I for sure told them he probably did it. Because, you know, he probably did. I love my dad but he’s a fucking idiot,” Andy said.

    I said I was surprised by the comment. I asked how he could tell a blogger, who is about to write this story, that is father “probably” started the most destructive wildfire in El Dorado County history. He explained, “Well, he did this shit all the time. He’d pass out and wake up and his campfire would be all over. He’s been cited for it. It’s the drugs. Again, I love my dad but he’s got problems with drugs. And plus, you know, he told me he was a suspect.”

    Andy said he was informed that Billy was missing much like the rest of the family. “I don’t remember who it was. I think it was a neighbor that called my aunt to say he hadn’t seen my dad in awhile and was probably dead in the fire or something. I was fucking worried. Seriously worried,” Andy said.

    Much like Amanda told me, Andy said that when Billy was found he told Andy that “the feds were looking for him for starting the Caldor Fire.” Andy asked his dad whether he did start the fire. “He never really answered. He just kept saying he was a suspect because of all those illegal campfires he got cited for,” Andy said.

    According to Billy’s sister, USFS investigators were indeed suspicious of Billy. Days after the fire, two agents showed up at her house looking for Billy. “They wanted to know where he was. They said they were investigating the origination of the Caldor Fire. I remember them using that word, ‘origination.’” She hasn’t spoken with her brother in years, she told them, and was unable to say where he was living let alone where he was at the time the fire began. One of the agents left a card, asking her to contact them if she heard from Billy:

    Throughout our interview, Andy repeatedly shared his suspicions about his father with me. “It was just shady as hell. I mean he disappears when the fire started. Then he turns up acting all weird. Says he was suspected of starting the fire. Won’t tell anyone where he was. I mean, shit, he probably did it,” he said.

    Our conversation made clear that much of what Amanda shared with me, and investigators, is very similar to what Andy actually told her. The key difference, however, is that Andy claims to have told Amanda that Billy “probably” started the fire, whereas Amanda recalls Andy being more certain.

    Towards the end of our interview, I reminded Andy that he was on the record and again asked if he still believes Billy could have started the fire. “100%. Absolutely. And it’s not ‘could have.’ He probably did it,” he replied. “I love him. He’s my dad. But if he did this? People should know.”

    According to Andy, no investigator has spoken with him about his story. “I was just locked up for like 100 days. If they wanted to talk they knew where to find me,” he said.

    After interviewing Amanda, reviewing the investigators’ recording, speaking with Billy’s family, and then finally interviewing Andy, the next step seemed logical: Contact Billy Freeman himself.

    So I did.

    Billy’s story will continue in Part Three.

  • Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part One – Travis’ Story

    Caldor Fire Witnesses Speak Out for the First Time: Part One – Travis’ Story

    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.

    Continue reading
  • Caldor Fire: Mark Matthews, a 9mm, and the Case Against the Smiths

    Caldor Fire: Mark Matthews, a 9mm, and the Case Against the Smiths

    It was 6:49 pm on August 14, 2021 when Shane Smith called 911 to report a wildland fire off Caldor road near the Dogtown Creek drainage. Within days, Shane and his father, David Smith, would become the focus of investigators’ attempts to determine how the fire started.

    David Smith is 66 years old and has lived in El Dorado County since the mid-1970s. He and his wife raised three children here and he has worked at the Pepsi plant in Elk Grove for 40 years. According to his attorney, David has no prior criminal history and TJR has been unable to find any criminal or arrest records in the State of California.

    David’s son, Shane, is 32 years old and grew up in Somerset, California. After high school he became a certified electrician and currently lives and works in Folsom. Friends describe Shane as an avid outdoorsmen. Shane appears to have no criminal history and his lawyers claim he has never been arrested.

    Continue reading
  • The Caldor Fire: What We Know

    The Caldor Fire: What We Know

    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.

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    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
    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.

    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.

    The Smiths
    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.

    What’s Next?
    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.

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  • Report: CalFire Investigators Once Suspicious of Matthews

    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.

    CONTINUE READING
  • Matthews Subject of 2017 Palominas Harassment Investigation, Other Violations, When He Retired Due to Cancer

    Photo Credit Mark Levy, Herald Review

    On October 14th, 2017 the Palominas Fire District (PFD) Board of Directors placed then-Chief Mark Matthews on a 30-day disciplinary suspension, according to internal Palominas documents. The suspension followed weeks of investigations into claims that Matthews harassed and threatened district staff. Just days after his suspension, Matthews’ retirement due to cancer was publicly announced.

    Mathews, the current chief of the Pioneer Fire Protection District, 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.

    CONTINUE READING
  • 22,000 Acres of Fuel Reduction Planned, Less than 4,000 Completed: Part Three of The Caldor Fire and the Impact of Forest Management

    This article is Part Three of my series examining how forest management in previous years impacted the earliest days of the Caldor Fire. Part Three explores how concerns about the Spotted Owl habitat reduced the scope of the Trestle Project, and how the project was ultimately left unfinished.

    It’s September 11, 2017. Eldorado National Forest (ENF) Supervisor Laurence Crabtree is signing a 13-page document to give final approval to the Trestle Forest Health Project (TFHP). After four years of intensive study, environmental impact statements, and community meetings, the TFHP can finally begin, albeit in a reduced scope.

    Five years earlier the ENF determined that forest to the southeast of Grizzly Flats was unhealthy, overgrown, and dangerous. As I previously reported, the ENF had proposed The Trestle Forest Health Project (TFHP), a multi-year project to reduce fuel loads and repair access roads across miles of unmanaged forest. The goal was to reduce wildfire danger to Grizzly Flats and surrounding communities as much as possible while negatively impacting the environment as little as possible.

    CONTINUE READING
  • PFPD Board Director Responds to Chief Matthews’ Accusations of Harassment, Raises New Questions (Part Two)

    As we previously reported, Pioneer Fire Protection District (PFPD) Chief Mark Matthews has accused Board Director Christina Holum of creating a “hostile work environment, harassment, and violation of state statues,” In a letter dated February 2, 2022 Matthews lays out several charges against Ms. Holum without offering specific examples. The letter was addressed to PFPD Board Chair Randy Rossi and Vice Chair Tony Marcaccio.

    After obtaining a copy of the letter last week, The Jericho Report reached out to Ms. Holum seeking comment. She denied all of Matthews’ accusations. When I asked where she thinks Matthews’ charges may stem from she said, “I ask a lot of questions. He doesn’t like that.”

    Ms. Holum joined the the PFPD Board of Directors as the Board Secretary in early 2021. It wasn’t long, she told me, before she began having concerns about Chief Matthews’ behavior and management practices. In our interview, Ms. Holum recalled a time when Chief Matthews reached out to the board to say his financial report would be late because he found a transposition error. Confused by the explanation of the error, Ms. Holum began asking questions.

    CONTINUE READING