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Father and Son Arrested on Suspicion of Starting the Caldor Fire

LOS ANGELES — A father and son have been arrested on suspicion of starting the Caldor fire, a huge blaze that burned perilously close to Lake Tahoe this year, sending residents of the resort region fleeing.

The El Dorado County District Attorney’s Office said on Wednesday that David Scott Smith, 66, and Travis Shane Smith, 32, had been accused of “reckless arson” in connection with a wildfire that tore through more than 220,000 acres starting in the middle of August.

The men, who are being held with bail set at $1 million each, have not yet been charged with a crime.

Mark Reichel, a Sacramento-based lawyer, said that the Smiths had hired him in August after their homes and phones were searched and that they were baffled by the suggestion that they had started the fire.

“My clients and I have literally just sat and waited for this day to come,” Mr. Reichel said. “As we sit here tonight, we have no idea what the prosecution’s theory is on how the fire started.”

The district attorney’s office did not provide details about what the men were accused of having done, and the U.S. Forest Service, which helped with the investigation, did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Mr. Reichel said his clients had been in the Eldorado National Forest for recreation when they spotted a fire. They called 911 several times because their calls kept dropping, he said, and also warned other campers about the blaze.

“They’re from the area,” he said. “They love the forest and nature.”

As Labor Day weekend approached, the Caldor fire forced the evacuation of thousands of residents and tourists, choking the azure Tahoe region in acrid smoke. Ski resorts were covered in fire retardant, and beaches were barren.

The blaze, which caused no deaths, destroyed about 1,000 structures.

Lightning has caused an increasing number of fires in remote areas, spurring frenzied evacuations and prompting debates about how to prevent and fight out-of-control blazes. Still, many of the biggest, deadliest and most destructive fires in California in recent years have been started directly or indirectly by humans.

Most notably, Pacific Gas and Electric, the state’s biggest utility, pleaded guilty to manslaughter in the deaths of 84 people killed in the 2018 Camp fire, the deadliest in California’s history. The company failed to maintain its equipment, which broke and started the fire.

That same year, a rancher hammered a metal stake in his yard to try to snuff out a wasp nest and ignited the Ranch fire, which was part of the Mendocino Complex, the state’s third-largest known blaze.

About 10 percent of wildfires in California are set on purpose, according to Cal Fire, the state’s biggest fire agency. This summer, a criminology professor was among several people whom officials accused of arson in a series of incidents across Northern California.

The Caldor fire was the 15th-largest in California’s recorded history, bolstering what experts have described as a frightening trend. Climate change has made huge swaths of the West hotter and drier, stoking a cycle of extreme weather. However wildfires are started, they burn more quickly and are harder to control.

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