Man pleads guilty to sparking Cedar Fire with off-road driving; 29,000 acres burned

The Cedar Fire burns Aug. 20, 2016. The fire has consumed thousands of acres in Kern and Tulare counties. (Photo from InciWeb)

By Carol Ferguson
September 29, 2016
BAKERSFIELDnow.com
(Home of KBAK & KBFX Eyewitness News)
 

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KBAK/KBFX) - All in one day, a man was charged, entered a guilty plea and was sentenced for this summer's destructive Cedar Fire.
 

Angel Gilberto Garcia-Avalos, 29, of Michoacán, Mexico, was ordered to serve 13 months in prison before he'll get deported. He was also ordered to repay the $61 million cost of fighting the blaze -- starting with $25 monthly allotments.
 
The Cedar Fire burned more than 29,000 acres in Kern and Tulare counties. Six cabins were destroyed in Tulare County, and the fire caused widespread evacuations. No one was injured in the fire.


Garcia appeared Thursday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Bakersfield. An attorney with the defender's office appeared by video conference, as well as a representative with the U.S. Attorney's Office, which filed the case against Garcia.


Magistrate Jennifer Thurston carefully questioned Garcia to be sure he understood the proceedings, and he was assisted by a translator. Through his attorney, Garcia said he wanted to plead guilty so he could be sentenced immediately.
 
The defense attorney said Garcia wanted to deal with this and then get back to supporting his family. She said he's the father of four small children and has a new baby due next week. The attorney said after Garcia serves his sentence, he will be returned to Mexico, and he wants to get back to work there.

Garcia admitted he sparked the fire Aug. 16 when he drove off road in the Sequoia National Forest. His car got stuck, and his muffler and catalytic converter came in contact with dead grass, according to the U.S. Attorney's Office.

 
But, the judge said she was particularly upset that Garcia did not report that immediately, that he initially denied knowing about the fire, and that he had his small son there when it started.
 
Garcia also admitted to lying to U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers. He originally denied driving off road and claimed his car had been stolen after he parked it on the side of Highway 155.
 
Federal investigators say two ranchers had spotted Garcia walking along the highway soon after the fire started. The ranchers offered help and told investigators Garcia seemed evasive and suspicious. That's why they also called authorities.
 
The ranchers said Garcia did call someone to pick him up, and they also saw something fall from his pocket. Investigators later said they believe that was a methamphetamine pipe.
 
Federal investigators said they questioned Garcia twice about the incident, and he lied to them both times.
 
Investigators found the burned car in the spot where they believe the fire started. Investigators said they also found shoe prints at that location and later matched those to shoes worn by Garcia's son when they first talked to him.
 
The judge said during sentencing she was concerned about Garcia's criminal record, which includes felony charges going back to when he was a juvenile. He's also currently on probation.
And, the judge pointed to Garcia's "immigration problems." Federal investigators said had entered the U.S. illegally several times.
 
In this case, Garcia was charged with two counts of providing false information to investigators. He also faced a charge of causing the Cedar Fire.
 
The judge said while he didn't intend to start the blaze, she found Garcia had acted with "significant negligence."

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