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Man gets prison and must pay $61 million for starting huge fire in the Sequoia National Forest

Hours after federal prosecutors filed charges against him, a Mexican national pleaded guilty Thursday to starting a wildfire that recently burned more than 45 square miles in the Sequoia National Forest.

A federal judge sentenced Angel Gilberto Garcia-Avalos, 29, to 13 months in prison and ordered him to pay $61 million in restitution for damage caused by the Cedar fire, according to the U.S. attorney’s office.

Garcia-Avalos, a resident of Michoacan, Mexico, was driving off-road illegally Aug. 16 when his Nissan Maxima got stuck on a berm and his catalytic converter and muffler ignited dead grass.

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The fire swiftly spread and burned 29,322 acres in Kern and Tulare counties, according to Acting U.S. Atty. Phillip A. Talbert. Flames destroyed six homes and triggered mandatory evacuations of several communities in both counties.

Prosecutors charged Garcia-Avalos with one count of causing a fire to burn in the forest and two counts of giving false information to a forest officer.

At his first court appearance Thursday in Bakersfield, he entered the guilty plea and was sentenced. While imposing the penalty, U.S. Magistrate Judge Jennifer L. Thurston commented that Garcia-Avalos exhibited “significant negligence” and made no effort to get help after the blaze erupted.

Prosecutors say Garcia-Avalos turned off a highway onto a rough dirt road in the forest and he got stuck as he tried to drive over the berm. When the car rolled back and hit a tree, the hot muffler and catalytic converter touched tall, dead grass and sparked the fast-moving blaze.

Ranchers spotted Garcia-Avalos carrying his 4-year-old son on his shoulders west of the Cedar Creek Campground area, where the fire had been reported, according to a U.S. District Court complaint. They suspected he started the fire and offered to help, but he said he was OK. Still, ranchers recorded the conversation with an iPhone.

Garcia-Avalos told the ranchers that his car had been stolen and that his son saw the man who took it, and that he was walking home to Delano, which is more than 42 miles away from the Cedar Creek area, according to an affidavit written by U.S. Forest Service Special Agent Brian Adams.

The ranchers were able to convince Garcia-Avalos to enter their home so that he could call someone for help. During the visit, they asked him several questions about the fire, and Garcia-Avalos denied responsibility, prosecutors say.

At the crash site, fire investigators found a burned vehicle and shoe prints belonging to a small child and an adult. The shoe prints led investigators from the car to Highway 155. Tire tracks found at the scene indicated that the driver tried several times to make it up a hill before the car hit the tree.

According to federal prosecutors, Garcia-Avalos lied to a Forest Service official about driving through the forest and having his car stolen.

Garcia-Avalos told the investigator that he and his son had gone to the mountains to “watch the view” and that he had gone to retrieve water when his son yelled out that a man with long hair was stealing the car, according to the affidavit. Garcia-Avalos agreed to have his and his son’s shoes photographed and taken for evidence.

Garcia-Avalos reported Aug. 29 to his probation office and was detained for deportation proceedings. Garcia-Avalos has previously been convicted of burglary, stealing a car and traffic violations, according to court documents. He told investigators that he entered the U.S. illegally.

veronica.rocha@latimes.com

For breaking news in California, follow VeronicaRochaLA on Twitter.

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UPDATES:

7:10 p.m.: This article was updated with details on the guilty plea and sentencing of Angel Gilberto Garcia-Avalos.

This article was originally published at 3:10 p.m.


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