A father and son have been arrested on suspicion of starting the Caldor Fire, which burned hundreds of thousands of acres in California over the course of more than two months this fall.
David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32, are accused of “reckless arson” but have not been formally charged with a crime, the El Dorado County District Attorney’s office announced on Wednesday. They are being held in the El Dorado County Jail with bail set at $1 million each.
The DA’s office did not elaborate on how the fire was started but said the men’s alleged actions “caused inhabited properties to burn and resulted in great bodily injury to multiple victims.”
The Smiths’ attorney, Mark Reichel, told NPR by phone that they “have no idea what the DA’s theory is whatsoever on how or why they started the fire,” which began in mid-August. He emphasized that no one is accusing the men of acting intentionally, with the district attorney saying it was set accidentally but in a reckless manner — and refusing to elaborate even as the family is getting threats online.
He said the men were out in the Eldorado National Forest “enjoying the area like everyone else” when they spotted the blaze and reported it to 911, calling in multiple times because their calls kept dropping. They retained a lawyer’s services later that month after being asked what Reichel described as “probing questions” by the U.S. Forest Service and DA’s office.
Reichel said once charges are formally filed, there will be an arraignment, likely Friday. He anticipates that his clients will be charged with felonies and that it will be a “very serious charge.”
“It doesn’t matter whether it’s a serious charge or a minor charge, we’re going to fight it 100%,” he said.
The Caldor Fire was the 15th largest wildfire recorded in California’s history.
It burned 221,835 acres across El Dorado, Amador and Alpine counties between Aug. 14 and Oct. 21, according to Cal Fire. By the time it was contained, it had destroyed more than 1,000 structures, damaged 81, injured at least five people and forced some 50,000 people to evacuate from the Lake Tahoe area.
Climate change makes large, destructive wildfires more likely because of higher temperatures and drier vegetation, as well as factors like expanding development and an overabundance of fuel due to past fire suppression.
Here’s more from CapRadio on how climate change is making “megafires” like Caldor worse.
This story originally appeared on the Morning Edition live blog.