Pioneer Fire Chief Matthews’ Former Department was Subject of Suspicious Fire Investigation

Photo Credit Mark Levy, Herald Review

In Part One of my ongoing investigation into the early response to the Caldor Fire, we were introduced to Pioneer Fire District Chief, Mark Matthews. Chief Matthews was one of the first, if not the first, to arrive on scene to the then-small brush fire in the Middle Fork of the Cosumnes River drainage. He has over 40 years of experience in firefighting and has led the Pioneer Fire District since 2018.

Matthews worked for 25 years fighting fires in Oregon. In 2014 he was asked to move to Palominas in Conchise County, Arizona to become the department’s chief there. According to Matthews, he was able to “turn around” the Palominos Fire Department by balancing the budget, improving public relations, and streamlining firefighter training. An article in a local newspaper quotes him as being “Very proud of what we have been able to accomplish as a district.”

On January 12, 2017 several 911 calls began coming into Conchise County. All were reporting brush fires in and around Palominas. In one hour, Palominas firefighters were dispatched to five brush fires alone. All of the fires were less than a half acre in size and were quickly extinguished thanks to a light wind and high moister content of the vegetation. Firefighters were immediately suspicious of how the fires may have started. Soon, the Conchise County Sheriff’s Department opened their own investigation in to the Palominas brush fires.


Part Three: Records Reveal Delays Evacuating Grizzly Flats

This article is the third in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021.

At 6:30 p.m. on August 16th, 2021 incident command released a public notice announcing the expansion of evacuation orders near the Caldor Fire to include the Dogtown Creek area. According to dispatch logs obtained through public records requests, fire had already been burning along the south side of Dogtown Creek since at least 2:45 p.m., nearly four hours prior to the Dogtown Creek evacuation order. Leoni Meadows and Grizzly Flats were not included, nor was there an evacuation warning issued for either area.

As I wrote about in Part 2 of this series, the first indication of fire crossing Dogtown Creek is noted in the logs at 6:48 p.m. on August 16th. Over the next two hours, Pioneer Fire Chief Mark Matthews calls dispatch to warn of the rapidly-growing spot fire. Matthews is repeatedly told he is on the wrong channel and it’s unclear why he is not following protocol and contacting incident command directly. At 8:51 p.m., logs describe the fire on the north side of Dogtown Creek as 5 acres and growing.


Part Two: Confusion and Danger as Fire Crosses Dogtown

This article is the second in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021.

In the first installment of this series we left off with crews being sent home on orders from the Eldorado National Forest (ENF) chiefs, according to firefighters at the scene and confirmed by dispatch and call logs. It was 1:43 a.m. on August 15th, 2021. Crews were furious to leave a fire that, in their opinion, was entirely uncontained.

Over the next several hours with crews pulled from the line, few entries are noted in the call logs. Evacuation orders are confirmed for just a 1.5 mile radius around the fire, and there appears to be some confusion on exactly how large the fire is at this point. At 7:24 a.m. logs suggest air attack planning has begun with discussion on which aircraft have been ordered and what dip sites aircraft may be able to use. Dip sites are bodies of water that helicopters can use to fills tanks or buckets to then drop on the nearby fire.


Part One: Caldor Fire Response Call Logs Reveal Delays, Confusion

This article is the first in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021.

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At 6:50 p.m. on August 14, 2021, Travis Shane Smith called 911 from an ATV trail on the north side of Dogtown Creek to report seeing fire to the south. Four minutes later the information Shane provided was routed to the CalFire Emergency Command Center in Camino. Because the fire was located on United States Forest land, the Eldorado National Forest fire chief officers were immediately dispatched. It was now 6:56 p.m. From this moment forward, call and radio logs suggest a disturbing pattern of confusion, missteps, and miscommunication. This article, the first in a series, examines the initial response to the Caldor Fire, a response one firefighter at the scene described as, “Nothing but chaos.”

The initial calls between 6:50 and 6:56 p.m. dispatched fire chiefs from the Eldorado National Forest (ENF), the nearby Pioneer Fire District, and CalFire. Importantly, ENF would be the lead agency due to the location of the fire. A chief from the Pioneer Fire District was the first to arrive in the general vicinity. Unfortunately, he was unable to locate the fire due to incorrect directions. It was 7:22 p.m.


Miner Mike: I Saw Smiths Driving Recklessly

A source close to the investigation into David and Travis Shane Smith has shared excerpts of interviews with a witness central to the case. The interviews were conducted by both local law enforcement and Special Agents from the USDA. The following is a summary of the shared excerpts, as well as information I gathered in my own investigation.

On August 14, 2021 a man who goes by ‘Miner Mike’ was camping near Dogtown Creek, just off Forrest Road 9N49, in the Eldorado National Forrest. According to the man’s wife, Miner Mike is homeless and has been living in the ENF for some time. The couple are estranged and the wife lives out of state.


DNA Found in Caldor Investigation

Documents obtained from a source close to the Caldor Fire investigation reveal DNA, which may belong to Travis Shane Smith, was found in the vicinity of what Special Agents are calling the “General Origin Area.” The documents appear to be authored by the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office as part of their motion to set bail for David and Travis Smith on December 9, 2021.

The text states that Travis Shane Smith called 911 at 6:50 p.m. on August 14, 2021 to report a wildfire in “the Caldor area near Grizzly Flats.” Emergency services were soon dispatched and USDA Special Agents later determined a “General Origin Area (GOA) of the fire, which was located near a swimming hole south of the Cosumnes River.” It was in the General Origin Area, according to the documents, that the Special Agents found a pair of earplugs.


The Smiths are Going Home

Today, attorneys for David and Travis Shane Smith argued the bail set for their clients was excessively high. After hearing from the defense and county prosecutors, the judge was swayed and reduced the bail.

In the motion to reduce bail, the judge agreed the defense made a compelling case. The Smiths’ attorneys placed emphasis on the apparent absence of any “cause and origin” report. To oversimplify, a cause and origin report is produced by an arson investigator. It states how a fire started and where it began. In their motion the defense argued, “Interestingly, in over 5,000 pages of written discovery provided to the defense there is no cause and origin report by an arson investigator/expert with an opinion as to the source or cause of the fire.”


Witness: I Saw David and Travis Smith That Day

With the bail hearing in the case against David and Travis Smith only hours away, a witness in the immediate vicinity of the Caldor Fire’s ignition is speaking out. In a phone call, this witness told me they saw David and Travis Smith on Forest Road 9N45 near Dogtown Creek moments before seeing flames. For the purposes of this article they have chosen to remain anonymous.

According to their account, around 3:00 p.m. on August 14, 2021 the witness saw two men traveling in a “side-by-side” (what many often call a “dune buggy”) along Forest Road 9N45 heading north. There was nothing unusual about this first encounter. In fact, the witness said they probably would have forgotten about seeing the two men in the side-by-side if it wasn’t for coming across them again later.