Prosecutors charge father and son suspected of starting Caldor fire in the Sierra

STRAWBERRY, CA - AUGUST 28: Firefighters work a control burn to head off a spot fire that started on a ridge behind a business on Hwy. 50 on Saturday, Aug. 28, 2021 in Strawberry, CA. Firefighters continue to tackle the Caldor fire as it creeps closer to South Lake Tahoe. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)
Firefighters work a control burn Aug. 28 near Strawberry, Calif., during their battle against the Caldor fire. (Jason Armond / Los Angeles Times)

Prosecutors in Northern California filed charges Thursday against a father and son suspected of starting the Caldor fire, which tore through the Sierra Nevada this year and threatened the resort city of South Lake Tahoe.

David Scott Smith, 66, and his son, Travis Shane Smith, 32, were arrested Wednesday on Ramey warrants, which are issued before criminal charges are filed, according to the El Dorado County district attorney’s office.

A criminal complaint filed Thursday formalized the charges against both men.

Travis Smith faces one count each of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury, recklessly causing fire to an inhabited structure, recklessly causing a fire of a structure or forest land, converting a firearm into a machine gun or knowingly manufacturing a machine gun, and possession of a silencer.

All five counts are felonies. Prosecutors are also seeking four enhancements on the first three counts:

  • That a firefighter, peace officer or other emergency personnel suffered great bodily injury as a result of the offense.

  • That the defendants proximately caused great bodily injury to more than one victim in a single violation.

  • That the defendants proximately caused multiple structures to burn in a single violation.

  • That the offense was committed during and within an area under a state of emergency proclaimed by the governor due to drought conditions.

David Smith faces the same charges as his son except for the machine gun conversion count, according to the criminal complaint. He also faces the same four enhancements on the first three counts.

Both men are scheduled for arraignment at 1:30 p.m. Friday in El Dorado County Superior Court.

Mark Reichel, a defense attorney representing both men, disputed prosecutors’ allegations, saying his clients were good people who had never before been charged with a crime.

The case against the Smiths, Reichel said, is based on prosecutors' "theories," not facts. The father and son were near the area where the Caldor fire started and, after seeing flames, tried calling 911 multiple times and warned nearby campers, the attorney said.

The fire started Aug. 14 and was contained Oct. 21, according to the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection. It was the 15th-largest wildfire on record in the state, consuming 221,835 acres, destroying 1,003 structures and damaging 81 more.

Five people were injured, according to Cal Fire.

Together with the Dixie fire, the Caldor blaze marked what officials called an “unprecedented” fire season that saw both conflagrations become the first to burn from one side of the Sierra Nevada to the other.

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.