A Northern California father and son were arrested on Wednesday over allegedly starting the large Caldor wildfire in August, which had come close to burning down the resort city of South Lake Tahoe.
The Caldor Fire began on August 14th earlier this year in central El Dorado County. While initially small, high winds quickly caused it to become one of the largest wildfires in the state. Evacuations of some towns began on Aug. 17th, with Governor Gavin Newsom ordering a state of emergency in the county later that day. The fire continued to rage Eastward toward Nevada, partially destroying the town of Grizzly Flats along the way. By late August, more high winds had brought the fire to the outskirts of South Lake Tahoe and numerous ski resorts in the area.
The rapid speed caused the evacuation of the entire city of South Lake Tahoe, one of the largest evacuations in California history. Over 30,000 people ended up fleeing to either safer parts of the state or into Nevada. Fortunately, wildfire crews working around the clock managed to halt the advance of the fire towards the city and around ski resort areas by September 2nd, with wildfire fighters sometimes even commandeering snowmaking machines to help put out the encroaching blaze. Evacuation orders were lifted less than a week later, and the blaze was soon controlled, with the fire officially being declared extinguished on October 21st by Cal Fire.
While no one had died in the Caldor Fire, 2 were injured with 782 structures being destroyed in the 347 square mile blaze. Investigators looking into the fire soon figured that the fire had not been sparked by natural causes and began looking into those who first reported the fire. This led to the arrest of 66-year-old Somerset resident David Smith and 32-year-old Folsom resident Travis Smith on Wednesday. Both Smiths were arrested for accusations of reckless arson under a Ramey warrant, a type of warrant issued before formal charges are filed, by the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office.
The reckless arson accusation means that it may have been unintentional or an accident, but it happened in such a way that it can still be called arson.
Citing the pending investigation, El Dorado County District Attorney Vern Pierson gave few details about the case on Wednesday and Thursday, only releasing a small statement later on Wednesday few follow-up details.
“A father and son are now under arrest, accused of reckless arson in connection with the Caldor Fire, the massive wildfire that burned more than 200,000 acres in El Dorado and Amador Counties” said the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office in their statement. “David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32, were arrested pursuant to Ramey warrants.”
Father, son arrested over alleged reckless arson
The lawyer for the Smiths’, Mark Reichel, said on Thursday that both of his clients were innocent. According to the father and son, they had spotted the flames that day and had attempted to call 911 multiple times, all the while telling nearby campers that a wildfire was nearby.
“They are absolutely 100% innocent,” explained Reichel. “Neither one has ever been in trouble with the law in their life. They’re very law-abiding people. There has been no evidence submitted into a court subject to my cross-examination that proves any of the prosecution’s evidence yet. So I urge everyone to wait and hear what really happened before they form any opinions.”
Others noted on Thursday that the allegations, backed up by an investigation by officials from El Dorado County, Sacramento County, Cal Fire, the U.S. Forest Service, and the California Department of Justice, may be hard to disprove.
“That’s an impressive pedigree behind any investigation,” firefighter Carl Riley told the Globe on Thursday. “Like their attorney said, let’s hear what they have to say first. It may turn out that they are completely innocent and had been really trying to alert people about it. But let’s also be critical about this. I saw what this fire, as well as many other before it, have done to the state, and if it was real arson, then they have to be put behind bars. A lot of wildfires are linked to arson, with some even being indicted in the last several weeks due to allegedly causing them.”
“This is a serious thing. People die because of this. Homes are destroyed, whole lives are ruined. For people like me on the line, we’re fighting to keep people safe and protect homes and businesses from being burnt down. Don’t start something that could cause people their lives.”
Both Smiths are currently booked into the El Dorado County Jail in Placerville. Bail has been set at $1 million each. According to their lawyer, the Smiths are expected to have a court appearance on Friday in El Dorado County Superior Court.
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