An illegal immigrant from Mexico has just pleaded guilty to this summer’s cedar fire that burned more than 29,000 acres in Kern and Tulare counties.
Angel Gilberto Garcia-Avalos, 29, of Michoacán, Mexico, has been ordered to serve 13 months in prison before he will be deported. He has also been ordered to repay the $61 million it cost to fight the fire. The money he has to repay will start with $25 monthly allotments, which at that rate would take over 200,000 years to pay back.
Garcia appeared Thursday afternoon at the federal courthouse in Bakersfield, California, and through his attorney, Garcia pleaded guilty so he could be sentenced immediately.
The defense attorney said Garcia wanted to plead guilty so he could get back to Mexico and continue to support his family.
Garcia admitted to starting the fire when he drove off road in the Sequoia National Forest. According to the U.S. Attorney’s Office, when his car got stuck, the muffler and catalytic converter caught dead grass on fire.
The judge said she was upset that Garcia did not report that immediately, and instead lied to U.S. Forest Service law enforcement officers. Garcia originally denied driving off road and claimed his car had been stolen after he parked it on the side of the highway.
Investigators found the burned car in the spot where they believe the fire started, as well as shoe prints that matched those worn by Garcia’s son when they first talked to him.
According to federal investigators, two ranchers spotted Garcia walking along the highway after the fire started, and said he looked evasive and suspicious. The ranchers also said they saw something fall from his pocket, and investigators said they believe that was a methamphetamine pipe.
Garcia also has a criminal record with felony charges, is currently on probation, and federal investigators say he has entered the U.S. illegally multiple times.