Testimony began Tuesday in a court hearing over how the devastating Caldor Fire began in 2021, with prosecutors signaling that they may try to show errant gunfire from two suspects sparked the Northern California blaze.
Father and son suspects David and Shane Smith have been charged with recklessly starting the fire Aug. 14, 2021, in El Dorado County near Grizzly Flat, and during the start of a preliminary hearing testimony focused on a witness who said he saw two men riding an all-terrain vehicle near the fire and later heard gunshots.
Robert Bossard, who had been camping for days near the site where the fire began, testified that he saw two men on a Razor ATV arrive in the early afternoon and drive around the area for up to three hours before heading over a hillside.
Within 15 minutes, Bossard said, he heard rapid-fire gunshots, maybe five to 10 rounds, from what sounded like a handgun.
“It was very fast,” he said, adding that the two men on the vehicle returned within half an hour and warned them a fire was burning on the other side of the hill.
“They told us there was a fire down there, that they tried to stomp it out but it was too big,” he said.
The two men then went to the top of a hill, where Bossard said he could hear them calling 911.
El Dorado Deputy District Attorney Jay Linden would not discuss the case with reporters Tuesday, but the Smiths’ defense attorneys, Mark Reichel and Linda Parisi, say they believe prosecutors plan to forward the theory that target practice led to a spark that ignited the fire, something they dismissed as nonsense.
“I think they’re going with the theory that bullets may have caused this fire, which is a theory without any support anywhere in the scientific or expert community,” Reichel said over a break in the proceedings. “It’s going to be an outlandish theory, which requires superior outlandish evidence, which you’re not going to see.
“The only person who did anything legitimately appropriate here were the Smiths, who immediately contacted others and said, ‘Move, get out of here, there’s a fire,’ and then repeatedly called 911 and then shortly thereafter cooperated with law enforcement.”
Neither lawyer would comment on whether the Smiths were firing weapons that day, but Parisi emphasized that the Smiths acted responsibly in reporting the fire.
“They did not attempt to hide their identity, they did nothing to hide the fact that they were at that location, and in fact repeatedly called law enforcement to advise them that there was a fire,” Parisi said. “And, in fact, they took the extra step of notifying the campers that were there.
“There was nothing reckless in their behavior.”
The preliminary hearing before El Dorado Superior Court Judge Vicki Ashworth is expected to last into Wednesday before she decides whether there is enough evidence to order the two men to face trial.
Bossard was the first witness and testified that he had camped at the site for five days before the fire began. He said there was a fire pit at the campsite, but insisted that he had followed Cal Fire restrictions that day against having a camp fire or firing a weapon because the state’s extreme drought at the time had made conditions tinder dry.
“We didn’t have a fire that week,” said Bossard, who had been sharing the campsite with Michael Patrick, known as Miner Mike, and Patrick’s collie.
Bossard said the two ate cold hot dogs as meals and used a propane burner to heat coffee, but that they never lit a fire.
He also said that the camping area was littered with shell casings — apparently from people engaged in target practice — but that he had not heard any shooting that week until the Saturday the fire broke out.
Bossard said he never came within 100 feet of the men on the ATV and could not identify them, but added that Miner Mike got closer and came back to camp after the pair reported a fire was burning nearby.
“When he came back he said, ‘I vote we bug out of here right now,’” Bossard said.
He testified it took about two hours to pack up camp and 20 minutes to drive up the shale road leading to Caldor Road to get out of the area.
Cal Fire says the blaze began Aug. 14, 2021, at 6:54 p.m. east of Omo Ranch and south of the town of Grizzly Flat.
The fire quickly exploded from its point of origin, eventually burning 221,835 acres — about 362 square miles — spread across El Dorado, Alpine and Amador counties and forcing the evacuation of South Lake Tahoe.
Officials say 1,005 homes, businesses and other structures were destroyed and 21 people were injured.
Cal Fire Battalion Chief Josh Vickers, who was on duty the day the fire began, testified that firefighting resources were stretched thin because of the massive Dixie Fire burning in Butte County, and recounted that gaining access to the origin point of the Caldor Fire was extremely difficult because of the rough terrain.
He said he led firefighters down a steep road toward the fire, where he hoped to contain it before it burned beyond 10 acres, but that the firefighting equipment could not get through the 6-foot-wide road because it was blocked by a fallen tree that he estimated was 5 feet in diameter and more than 100 feet long.
Under questioning from the defense attorneys, Vickers said he and other firefighters determined it would have been too dangerous to try and cut such a huge tree apart, especially as night fell.
Vickers added that another firefighter managed to make it closer to the fire through another route that included traversing a creek in a pickup, but that the firefighter told him he could not recommend Vickers’ crew attempt that with heavy equipment.
The response to the Caldor Fire has sparked controversy since the blaze erupted, with residents complaining that Cal Fire or U.S. Forest Service fire teams could have stopped it earlier by attacking it more aggressively, and Parisi contended that officials did not properly maintain the area over the years.
“What has become clear is that the fire service did not properly maintain that area,” she told reporters. “There are a lot of questions as to how and what law enforcement and fire did in response to this.”
Reichel questioned Vickers about fire dispatch logs that indicated Pioneer Fire Protection District Chief Mark Matthews radioed in from the scene at 8 p.m. that forward progress on the fire had been stopped, but Vickers said he never heard that call.
“I never heard that,” Vickers said, “but I can assure you that there was not a moment that we were not actively fighting that fire.”
Matthews, who died of cancer last year, told The Sacramento Bee in a 2022 interview that he was one of the first firefighters on scene and described a brutal night of battling the blaze.
Tuesday afternoon, Parisi and Reichel questioned Cal Fire Battalion Chief Erik Fiedler about other potential suspects who had been investigated in connection with the fire, including Matthews.
Reichel elicited testimony that Matthews had come under investigation as a firefighter in Cochise County, Arizona, in connection with a series of grass fires at which he had been the first responder.
Matthews told The Bee previously he had done nothing wrong in Arizona or at the Caldor Fire, and Fiedler said Cal Fire’s investigation of Matthews did not lead to him being a suspect.
“We came to a conclusion as a team he was not responsible for the fire,” Fiedler said.
Reichel played a recording of Fiedler interviewing Matthews on Aug. 17, 2021, in which Matthews said, “Actually, could you guys just arrest me so I can go get some rest.” Fiedler said Matthews’ statement seemed like he was joking.
Reichel also elicited testimony from Fiedler that Matthews had been kicked off duty at the Carr Fire in 2021 for some reason.
Reichel told The Bee that he believed there was enough evidence for people other than the Smiths to have been charged.
“The very limited investigation conducted into other viable suspects, including former Pioneer Fire Chief Matthews, showed enough evidence to charge each one of them; there’s more to those suspects than there are to our clients.”