A garbage truck driver accused of dumping a burning load of trash that led to the deadly Sandalwood fire in 2019 that killed two people and destroyed more than 1,000 acres of vegetation has been charged with two counts of involuntary manslaughter, the authorities in California said on Tuesday.
The driver, Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez, 38, of Desert Hot Springs, who was arrested on Saturday, was also charged with unlawfully causing a fire that caused great bodily harm, according to jail records and a statement from the Riverside County Fire Department.
If convicted on all counts, he would face a maximum penalty of 13 years in prison, according to John Hall, a spokesman for the Riverside County District Attorney’s Office. Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez was released on bail and scheduled to return to court in June, according to jail records.
Telephone calls and Facebook messages left for Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez were not immediately answered on Tuesday night.
The deadly blaze broke out on Oct. 10, 2019, amid a spell of dry and windy weather that had led the authorities to warn residents about potential fires. Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez, the authorities said, dumped a burning load of trash on the side of the road in Calimesa, Calif., sparking a fire that quickly spread to a nearby field and shot black plumes into the sky.
While driving, Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez noticed smoke coming from his hopper, pulled over “and compacted the burning load inside the truck’s hopper,” according to a statement in support of an arrest warrant for Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection.
“The day was hot, dry and unusually windy,” it said. “The winds were blowing from the truck directly towards the dry brush wild land area.”
While Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez was pulled over, a driver of a Frito Lay truck stopped alongside him and warned him “multiple times about the fire danger presented by the high winds,” according to the statement. That driver asked Mr. Ornelas-Velazquez not to dump his burning trash in that area, it said. Another driver who pulled over also warned him not to dump the trash, the report said.
The fire killed two people, destroyed more than 70 structures and grew to the size of Central Park. Both victims were found inside the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park, according to the Riverside County Sheriff’s Department.
The fire was contained by Oct. 14, four days after it began.
Sheelagh McNeill contributed research.