• The Caldor Fire and the Impact of Forest Management – Part One: The Trestle Project Aims to Reduce Wildfire Risk to El Dorado County

    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.

  • GPS Data, 911 Call Reveal Smiths’ Movements at Start of Caldor Fire

    “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.

  • Pioneer Board Chairman Responds to Jericho Report as Private Citizen, Copies Attorney

    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.

  • Pioneer Firefighter Demanded Investigation into Chief Matthews Over Claims of 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.

  • Sheriff’s Report: Firefighters’ Suspicion Prompted Investigation into Fire Chief Mark Matthews

    Image Credit: ABC10

    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.

  • The Caldor Fire and the Impact of Forest Management – Introduction: The Trestle Project and Grizzly Flats

    Trestle Forest Health Project Alternative #5 Map, September 13, 2017

    Above is a map of the Trestle Forest Health Project (TFHP), a plan to treat 16,000 acres of land south and east of Grizzly Flats to improve forest health and fire resiliency. On September 11, 2017, after four years of proposals and environmental impact studies, Eldorado National Forest (ENF) Supervisor Lawrence Crabtree signed his decision to thin thousands of acres of forest. However, by the summer of 2021 only 270 acres of fuel reduction were complete, according to TFHP partner National Wild Turkey Federation. So, what went wrong?

  • Part Four: Chaos as Grizzly Flats Burns, Fire Marches On

    Photo credit: Josh Edelson / AFP via Getty Images

    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.

  • 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

    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

    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.