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Father and Son, David Scott Smith aged 66 and Travis Shane Smith aged 32, have been taken into custody under $1 million bail each. They’ve been accused of accidentally starting the Caldor Fire that blazed for more than 2 months and forced thousands to evacuate their NorCal homes.
The official filing of the felony charges and court appearances have been scheduled for Friday, and the defendants are planning on arraignment. The two were arrested with a “Ramey warrant,” meaning criminal charges were still yet to be filed at the time of arrest.
According to NPR and CalFire, the fire burned 221,835 acres across the El Dorado, Amador, and Alpine counties between August 14th and October 21st. Reportedly, it’s the 15th largest wildfire recorded in California history. More than 1,000 structures were destroyed and at least 5 people were injured. ABC News explains that 2 of the 5 were civilians and 3 were firefighters. 50,000 people had to evacuate from their homes.
Climate change is expected to have played a role in this fire because of higher temperatures and drier vegetation. Additionally, development expansion and fuel leftover from past fire suppressions are expected to have made the situation much worse. However, District Attorney Vern Pierson has not elaborated on how the fire was started, only blaming the men’s alleged actions.
Mark Reichel, the Smiths’ attorney, claims to have “no idea what the DA’s theory is whatsoever on how or why they started the fire.” No one is accusing the men of acting intentionally, only of being reckless. He claims the two were only ”enjoying the area like everyone else” when they noticed the blaze and tried to call 911. They called multiple times when the calls dropped or the signal was poor. According to Buzzfeed News, they also tried to warn campers to leave the area.
Regardless, the DA is refusing to elaborate despite the family receiving threats online. Apparently, they looked into hiring an attorney after answering “probing questions” from the U.S. Forest Service and the DA’s office. They were completely surprised at their arrest and the suggestion that they were responsible.
KCRA elaborates on the charges that the two received, including a number of enhancements. They’ve been charged with recklessly causing the Caldor Fire, unlawfully converting a firearm into a machine gun, and possessing silencers for firearms.
According to The Sacramento Bee the pair was seen riding a dune buggy in the area when they spotted the fire, and investigators are looking into the possibility that the fire was sparked by target shooting.
Reichel maintains that “ these people are 100% innocent…There’s no evidence whatsoever that they’ve done it accidentally. It’s just a theory.” The Smiths have lived in the area for their entire lives and have never been accused of a crime.
Much of the Grizzly Flats community has been severely harmed and residents are in the process of rebuilding. A Grizzly Flats resident, Jodi Lauther, explains that “[the arrest] doesn’t change anything for a lot of us… It doesn’t bring our houses back. It doesn’t bring our memories back.” Another, Katie Thomas, says, “It may have been a complete accident, but honestly, I don’t care. My house is gone.”
Nick Schuler of Cal Fire told The BBC that “About 95% of fires are human caused… That doesn’t mean intentionally caused.” Additionally, Schuler disclosed that the dry and hot weather makes it possible for a person driving from the area and pulling a trailer could accidentally cause dozens of fires.
In The Guardian, Reichel presses that no evidence has been “submitted into a court subject to my cross-examination… So I urge everyone to wait and hear what really happened before they form any opinions.”
The DA’s office says the case was developed in collaboration with the U.S. Forest Service, California’s Firefighting agency, and the California Department of Justice. They also received help from the Sacramento county DA’s crime lab.