In November, 2021 I began working on a big-picture look at the Caldor Fire. I wanted to understand how the fire started and how the forest service responded. I wanted an inside look at who was doing what, when, and where during those first crucial hours following ignition in the Dogtown Creek drainage.
I obtained CalFire dispatch logs. I interviewed firefighters and Sheriff’s deputies who were on the front lines. I scoured social media posts to find the witnesses that were truly there. While my research has led me to cover a wide variety of branching stories, I seemed to come across one name everywhere I looked: Mark Matthews.
This article is Part One of my series examining how forest management in previous years impacted the earliest days of the Caldor Fire. Part One explores what the Trestle Forest Health Project was and why it was needed.
It is early 2013 and Kathryn Hardy, Forest Supervisor of Eldorado National Forest, is preparing a letter to residents of Grizzly Flats. Hardy is writing about the proposed Trestle Forest Health Project, a multi-year undertaking by the United States Forest Service to reduce fire hazards and improve forest health in the Grizzly Flats and Leoni Meadows region. Her eight-page letter lays out the scope of the proposal and why the project is needed.
After decades of little-to-no-intervention, the forest here is overgrown and unhealthy. Fuel loads and fire hazards are high. Roads are washed out and impassible. Wildlife habitats are under threat. New growth vegetation is quickly swallowing a once-sustainable forest.
“I have the GPS coordinates of roughly where it is.” The time is 6:52 p.m. on August 14, 2021. Travis (Shane) Smith is connected to Camino dispatch after calling 911 to report a fire in the Dogtown Creek area of the Eldorado National Forest. With poor reception and heavy background noise the agent is having a difficult time understanding what Shane is trying to say. What happens next will cause a critical delay in fighting what would turn out to be one of the most destructive wildfires in California history.
Just days after the 911 call, as the fire was still pushing across the county, investigators were zeroing in on David and Shane Smith. Based on witness statements who claim to have seen the Smiths near the fire’s origin, law enforcement obtained search warrants on the Smiths’ properties (more on these search warrants in future posts). As part of their investigation, the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office requested that the GPS data from the Smiths’ all-terrain vehicle be analyzed to determine their location around the time the fire allegedly began.
Edit: I have confirmed that Eric Stevens represents himself as “attorney on behalf of Pioneer Fire Protection District.”
As part of my research into the early response to the Caldor Fire, I came across several statements made by Pioneer Fire Protection District Chief, Mark Matthews, about his experience fighting the fire between August 14-17, 2021. Chief Matthews has written an open letter to the community about his harrowing experience being trapped by flames in the Dogtown Creek area and he has spoken at Pioneer board meetings about being the first to arrive on scene to the fire.
These public statements led me to begin researching background information on Chief Matthews in order to properly build his profile. My findings continue to uncover troubling claims against Matthews made by multiple employees over several years in at least two different states. I have uncovered stories told by Matthews’ former fighters about alleged mismanagement, outdated training techniques, and lack of experience in wildland firefighting. Two firefighters were so concerned about Matthews’ behavior that they reached out to law enforcement who then investigated suggestions of arson in Palominas, Arizona. Another firefighter working under Matthews stood in front of the Pioneer Fire Protection District Board of Directors and made claims against Matthews about illegal spying.
At the March 14, 2019 board meeting for the Pioneer Fire Protection District, firefighter Kane Gardiner spoke of suspected illegal behavior at the hands of Chief Mark Matthews.
In his speech Gardiner claims that “all personnel” in the fire district suspect Matthews of recording conversations among staff members since the very beginning of Matthews’ tenure. “There have been too many coincidences of conversations between staff, and within days a new policy or department directive based on these conversations.” He goes on to claim that an electronic device has been discovered.
Gardiner tells the board that a Panasonic Home Hawk device was recently discovered in Matthews’ office. This device is capable of recording both audio and video and can be triggered by motion. Gardiner then demands the board conduct an immediate investigation and background check.
In July, 2017 Officer John Monroe of the Cochise County Sheriff’s Office filed a report detailing his investigation into complaints made against then-Palominas Fire Chief Mark Matthews. I obtained a copy of the report and interviewed witnesses associated with the report’s content.
Matthews was the first to arrive on scene to the Caldor Fire on August 14, 2021. He has been the fire chief of the Pioneer Fire Protection District since 2018. Prior to this he was the fire chief of the Palominas Fire District in Cochise County, Arizona. It was here that people close to Matthews, including his own staff, became suspicious of his behavior. So suspicious, in fact, that some began contacting law enforcement to report their concerns.
This article is the fourth and final installment in a series examining the initial response to the Caldor Fire August 14-17, 2021. In-depth reporting on these and the following days will continue in future posts and series.
At 11:12 p.m. on August 16, 2021 the Caldor Fire Incident Command (IC) officially orders the evacuation of Grizzly Flats. Fire has been burning on the north side of Dogtown Creek, moving through Leoni Meadows, for nearly four hours and 30 minutes. It is not yet clear why so many hours passed before the evacuation call was made. One firefighter, who spoke to me on condition of anonymity, had just arrived in Grizzly Flats as part of a last-minute effort to save the town. “We had our job to do. That’s our focus. But I couldn’t believe there were still residents there. I really thought someone was going to lose their life that night,” they said.
In the following moments, official dispatch call logs suggest a frantic effort to protect the homes and businesses in the Grizzly Flats area. At 11:28 p.m. CalFire dispatches six additional engines to report to Grizzly Flats’ station. Nine minutes later a request goes out for three more engines to Leoni Meadows. At 11:53 p.m. IC orders four engines to Grizzly Flats followed by two more at 12:04 a.m. It was too late.