Sanc­tu­ary law led to de­struc­tive for­est fire

Au­thor­i­ties not al­lowed to re­port il­le­gal im­mi­grant to fed­eral agents

The Washington Times Weekly - - National - BY STEPHEN DINAN

WOF­FORD HEIGHTS, CALIF. | An­gel Gil­berto Gar­cia-Ava­los had been de­ported five times in just the past four years, yet each time he has man­aged to sneak from Mex­ico back into the U.S., where he ended up in more mis­chief: driv­ing with­out a li­cense, at­tempted bur­glary and felony weapons charges.

In Au­gust, he grad­u­ated to full-fledged may­hem, spark­ing a fire in the Se­quoia Na­tional For­est that has al­ready cost the gov­ern­ment $61 mil­lion and left some of the coun­try’s most beau­ti­ful land­scape scarred for years to come.

Gar­cia, who pleaded guilty last month and faces 13 months in prison, had only re­cently been re­leased from the Kern County Jail. He likely would have been de­ported again, but lo­cal au­thor­i­ties were un­able to re­port him to im­mi­gra­tion au­thor­i­ties be­cause of Cal­i­for­nia’s new sanc­tu­ary city law, which pro­hib­ited the sher­iff from com­mu­ni­cat­ing with fed­eral agents.

Fed­eral agents now say they will kick Gar­cia out of the coun­try once he serves his lat­est sen­tence, but the dam­age has al­ready been done.

At a point along State High­way 155 through the Se­quoia Na­tional For­est, the smell of cedar gives way to the stench of soot. Ash-black­ened trees above and be­low the road­way show the path of the blaze.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors de­ter­mined that the spark came from a Nis­san Maxima that Gar­cia was driv­ing over a rough dirt trail near Cedar Creek. Gar­cia tried to drive over a berm and hit a tree. The hot muf­fler on his car ig­nited grass parched by years of drought, in­ves­ti­ga­tors said in an ac­count filed in fed­eral court.

Ranch­ers rush­ing to the site of the fire saw Gar­cia who, de­spite the blaze rag­ing over his shoul­der, in­sisted he wasn’t aware of it much less re­spon­si­ble for it.

In­ves­ti­ga­tors punc­tured his story by match­ing foot­prints from the car to those of Gar­cia and his son.

Decades to re­cover

John Cha­tel, an en­dan­gered species spe­cial­ist who led the For­est Ser­vice’s eval­u­a­tion team after the fire, said it wasn’t the most dam­ag­ing burn he has seen but added that the ef­fects could last for years.

Of the 29,000 acres that were touched by fire, more than half sus­tained mod­er­ate or high-in­ten­sity burns. Com­mu­ni­ties were evac­u­ated in two coun­ties, and a hand­ful of cab­ins and out­build­ings were scorched.

It took six weeks to fully con­tain the fire. Of­fi­cials warned at the be­gin­ning of Oc­to­ber that hot spots could per­sist un­til the first snows blan­ket the area and snuff out the last ves­tiges.

The fire didn’t spread to Se­quoia Na­tional Park to the north of the for­est, which is home to groves of the ma­jes­tic trees.

But it took more than $60 mil­lion to con­tain and ex­tin­guish the blaze. Mr. Cha­tel sub­mit­ted an emer­gency restora­tion plan at a cost of $500,000. That doesn’t in­clude long-term restora­tion of camp­sites, cat­tle­graz­ing ar­eas and long-term reveg­e­ta­tion.

Mr. Cha­tel said the drought, now in its fifth year, prob­a­bly will make it tougher for the for­est to re­cover.

“It’s got to be re­ally chal­leng­ing — not im­pos­si­ble, but chal­leng­ing — for a lot of the for­est that was there his­tor­i­cally to come back in a rea­son­able amount of time,” he said. “It’s go­ing to take decades and decades from a conifer stand­point to get back what you lost.”

De­stroy­ing the land­scape

Gar­cia has ad­mit­ted to his role in the fire but shows lit­tle re­morse.

Court doc­u­ments say he got testy with the ranch­ers when they ac­cused him. “How am I go­ing to start that fire?” he said. “Does it look like I would do that?”

At one point while Gar­cia was talk­ing with the ranch­ers, a glass metham­phetamine pipe fell out of his pocket and he quickly moved to con­ceal it, For­est Ser­vice Spe­cial Agent Brian A. Adams wrote.

Gar­cia claimed the Nis­san Maxima, which be­longed to his girl­friend’s mother, was stolen when he and his son went to get some wa­ter — though there is no wa­ter source any­where in the vicin­ity, the agent said.

Fires sparked by il­le­gal im­mi­grants are more com­mon — and more con­tro­ver­sial — along the bor­der.

The fed­eral gov­ern­ment’s main fire in­for­ma­tion cen­ter tracks whether blazes were sparked by hu­mans but doesn’t record their na­tion­al­ity or le­gal sta­tus.

In 2011, after a se­ries of blazes in south­ern Ari­zona, Sen. John McCain blamed il­le­gal im­mi­grants. He was re­sound­ingly re­buked by im­mi­grant rights groups that said the Ari­zona Repub­li­can was spec­u­lat­ing, scape­goat­ing and spread­ing “hate and fear.”

Months later, the Gov­ern­ment Ac­count­abil­ity Of­fice, Congress’ of­fi­cial non­par­ti­san watch­dog, backed up the sen­a­tor. GAO in­ves­ti­ga­tors re­viewed 77 hu­man-caused fires along the Ari­zona bor­der and con­cluded that 30 of them were caused by il­le­gal bor­der crossers.

Worse yet, the pres­ence of the il­le­gal im­mi­grants made fight­ing the fires even tougher. One in­ves­ti­ga­tor told The Wash­ing­ton Times that armed agents had to ac­com­pany fire­fight­ers.

In Cal­i­for­nia, Kern County Sher­iff Donny Young­blood said the prob­lems go be­yond fire. He said mar­i­juana grows are be­com­ing more fre­quent on fed­eral lands. When they are raided, the grows are usu­ally found to be manned by il­le­gal im­mi­grants — some of them forced into the la­bor. State and lo­cal law en­force­ment have be­come en­gaged in shootouts at the grows.

“They’re de­stroy­ing the land­scape of our na­tional for­est,” the sher­iff told The Wash­ing­ton Times.

Gar­cia’s record

Gar­cia’s case il­lus­trates the on­go­ing prob­lem with the U.S.-Mex­ico bor­der. Al­though less ac­tive than it was a decade ago, the bor­der re­mains porous enough for bad el­e­ments to sneak across with ap­par­ent ease. That en­abled Gar­cia to come back to his 4-year-old son, iden­ti­fied in court pa­pers only by the ini­tials G.G.

Gar­cia has a long crim­i­nal record that in­cludes auto theft, bur­glary and firearms charges. Nabbed last year after fail­ing to ap­pear in court to face felony charges, he was sen­tenced to more than a year in jail and was re­leased for good be­hav­ior after serv­ing 194 days.

In the past, Kern County would have re­ported him to fed­eral im­mi­gra­tion agents and his crim­i­nal record and re­peated de­por­ta­tions would have made him a pri­or­ity case. But Cal­i­for­nia’s Trust Act, signed into law last year by Gov. Jerry Brown, a Demo­crat, put an end to that co­op­er­a­tion.

“We didn’t hold him be­cause he did not meet the Trust Act,” Sher­iff Young­blood said.

Now that he is in fed­eral prison, ICE will have bet­ter luck when he is re­leased upon com­ple­tion of a 13-month sen­tence to which he agreed in his plea bar­gain.

But given his pro­fi­ciency at sneak­ing back into the U.S., there is lit­tle sense that he will be de­terred.

“We have to change the risk-cost-ben­e­fit equa­tion,” said Jes­sica Vaughan, pol­icy stud­ies di­rec­tor at the Cen­ter for Im­mi­gra­tion Stud­ies. “There are al­ways go­ing to be th­ese mul­ti­ple re-en­try cases, and we should pros­e­cute more of them, but at a cer­tain point it is no longer a de­ter­rent; that’s why we have to make it harder for them to get back in.”

She said fam­i­lies of re­peat of­fend­ers in the coun­try il­le­gally could also be de­ported, re­mov­ing the in­cen­tive for them to come back. Ms. Vaughan said tar­get­ing the smug­gling op­er­a­tions that help sneak mi­grants into the U.S. would help.

AS­SO­CI­ATED PRESS

A 29,000acre blaze in the Se­quoia Na­tional For­est was caused by an il­le­gal im­mi­grant with a long crim­i­nal record. The wild­fire cost $61 mil­lion and left some of the coun­try’s most beau­ti­ful land­scape scarred for years to come.

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