Man Guilty Of Setting Seqouia Forest Fire Must Pay $61 Million In Restitution
On August 16, 29-year-old Angel Gilberto Garcia-Avalos was illegally driving his Nissan SUV off-road in the Sequoia National Forest, in northern Kern County. While driving, Garcia-Avalos stuck his vehicle on a piece of raised land. He tried and failed to free the car, and heat from the SUV's muffler and catalytic converter lit some dry grass underneath the car on fire. This small fire quickly grew and spread into a 42 square-mile blaze now known as the Cedar Fire.
On Thursday, Garcia-Avalos pleaded guilty to two charges of giving false information to a forest officer, and one charge of causing a fire to burn in the forest, according to the L.A. Times. As a condition of Garcia-Avalos' plea, which was entered the same day federal prosecutors first filed charges against him, a federal judge sentenced him to 13 months in prison, and ordered him to pay a $61 million restitution fee for the Cedar fire's damage.
After igniting the blaze, Garcia-Avalos, and his four-year-old son, left the burning vehicle on foot. Some area ranchers soon spotted the two walking in the vicinity shortly after the fire began, and offered to help. The ranchers noted Garcia-Avalos was acting suspiciously, declined their offer for a ride, and said that his car had been stolen after he parked it along Highway 155, according to Bakersfield Now. Because of his suspicious behavior, the ranchers reported Garcia-Avalos to the local authorities.
When federal investigators (twice) questioned Garcia-Avalos about the fire and whether or not he had been driving off-road, he stuck to the story that his car had been stolen. When investigators examined the fire's ignition site, they discovered the burned out SUV surrounded by two pairs of footprints that appeared to belong to to a small child and an adult. Their investigation concluded that the SUV had tried several times to scale a small hill, before rolling backwards and crashing into a tree.
"Garcia said the vehicle was stolen up there, pointing to the east where the fire was," said Brian Adams, a U.S. Forest Service Special Agent, to the Visalia Times-Delta. "He said he has parked the car on the side of the road but he did not know exactly where he stopped."
By now, the Cedar Fire has been controlled and extinguished. The blaze, however, burned for several weeks across both Kern and Tulare counties in the foothills of the Sierra Nevada. Though the fire prompted widespread evacuations and burned six cabins in Tulare County, there were no injuries.
As for Garcia-Avalos, a resident of Michoacan, Mexico, he will be deported after serving his 13-month sentence. Once there, he will begin paying the $61 million restitution in monthly payments of $25.