Garbage truck driver charged in Sandalwood fire that killed 2

Burned-out mobile homes are seen in an aerial view after a fire in Riverside County.
The 1,000-acre Sandalwood fire in October 2019 moved through the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park, killing two women.
(Carolyn Cole / Los Angeles Times)

A Calimesa man has been arrested in connection with a brush fire in Riverside County that killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes in 2019, authorities said.

Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez, 38, was arrested Saturday and charged with involuntary manslaughter and unlawfully causing a fire resulting in great bodily injury, according to a spokesperson with the Riverside County district attorney’s office. After posting $75,000 bond, Ornelas-Velazquez was released Sunday, according to jail records.

The fast-moving Sandalwood fire erupted on Oct. 10, 2019, after the driver of a garbage truck dumped a “hot load” — a pile of burning trash — along the side of 7th Street near dried-out vegetation, Capt. Fernando Herrera, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said at the time. Ornelas-Velazquez was operating that truck, authorities said.


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Garbage trucks often haul a dangerous cocktail of combustible items — batteries, pesticides, paint — and it’s not unheard of for drivers to dump a simmering load, Herrera said at the time.

Two women who lived in the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park were killed when the fast-moving Sandalwood fire — named for a street near the mobile home park — swept through the neighborhood on Oct. 10, 2019. Hannah Labelle, 61, and Lois Arvickson, 89, could not outrun the flames that overcame the community and ultimately destroyed 74 structures.

A mug shot of Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez
Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez was charged with involuntary manslaughter and unlawfully causing a fire resulting in great bodily injury.
(Riverside County Fire Department)

A declaration in support of the arrest warrant stated that Ornelas-Velazquez noticed smoke coming from his hopper while driving a trash truck for CR&R Recycling and pulled over to compact the burning load next to open brush.

A Frito-Lay truck driver and a second motorist stopped to tell Ornelas-Velazquez that the area posed a fire danger and warned him against dumping anything that was burning during a Santa Ana wind advisory, prosecutors said.

The fire ultimately burned 1,011 acres over four days before it was contained.