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Judge orders men to pay $9 million in restitution for Colby fire

Judge orders Colby fire defendants to pay $9.1 million in restitution

A federal judge ordered Monday that three men pay more than $9 million in restitution to public agencies, insurance companies and residents for damages caused by the Colby fire this year.

Clifford Eugene Henry Jr., Steven Robert Aguirre and Jonathan Carl Jarrell -- who were convicted this year of lighting an illegal campfire that sparked the nearly 2,000-acre blaze -- are jointly responsible for paying the restitution, according to court documents filed Monday.

More than half the $9.1 million was earmarked for government agencies that helped fight the fire, according to court records filed Monday. The rest will be split between insurance companies and individual residents of Glendora and Azusa. 

The largest amount, more than $4.3 million, was set aside for the U.S. Forest Service. The L.A. County Fire Department was awarded roughly $1.8 million. Glendora and Azusa police, along with the L.A. County Department of Public Works, will also be compensated. 

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FOR THE RECORD

A previous version of this post said the L.A. Department of Water and Power will also be compensated. It is L.A. County Department of Public Works.

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Assistant U.S. Atty. Joseph O. Johns, who oversees the prosecution of environmental crimes, said the government was "generally satisfied" with the ruling, but acknowledged it would not compensate for everything lost in the fire. 

"That, for us, is the true tragedy of this case, as with any wildfire whenever homes are damaged or destroyed," he said. "People simply cannot replace the memorabilia of their lifetimes."

The fire, which began the morning of Jan. 16, destroyed six homes and damaged eight others. Seventeen structures were burned. Three people were injured, including two firefighters. 

The three men were detained by Glendora police officers as they fled the fire area. They initially denied starting the fire, though Henry said it might have been sparked because of his "marijuana smoking," according to a federal affidavit. 

The men later said they had hiked to the area on the night of Jan. 15 and started a campfire, building a rock circle around it and later dousing it with dirt, the affidavit said. They said they woke up cold the next morning and began building another fire — even though the winds had picked up.

Jarrell threw a notebook into the fire as a gust of wind "came out of nowhere," carrying the burning paper into a bush, the affidavit said.

The men told investigators they tried to stamp out of the flames but couldn't. They then ran down the hillside.

Hundreds of residents were evacuated as the blaze burned through federal, state, local and private lands near Glendora and neighboring Azuza. 

Henry, a 23-year-old Glendora resident, served a six-month sentence and was released Nov. 20, according to federal prison records. Aguirre, a 22-year-old resident of Baldwin Park, was sentenced to five months in prison. He is scheduled to be released Dec. 31.

Jarrell will be sentenced next year.

Both Jarell and Aguirre have been described as transients. Johns acknowledged it will be difficult to recoup the full $9.1 million but said the government would "do its best over the coming years."

Johns said he hoped the judge's decision sends a message to residents living in fire-prone Southern California. He said officials were thankful there were no deaths or serious injuries 

"Whether or not you start a fire intentionally or accidentally, if your actions cause a devastating wildfire, you are going to be held responsible," he said. "That may include a prison sentence. It may also include a very significant restitution order."

Follow @katemather for more Southern California crime news.

Copyright © 2016, Los Angeles Times

UPDATES

6:05 p.m.: This post has been corrected to show that the L.A. County Department of Public Works and not the L.A. Department of Water and Power will be compensated for costs.

This post was originally published at 4:46 p.m.

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