Clearlake resident sentenced for forest arson

Clearlake resident sentenced for forest arson

16 January 2009

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USA — A Clearlake resident received a four-year prison sentence Monday for allegedly setting fire to forest land last summer.

Mendocino County Superior Court Judge sentenced Gerardo Soto-Gonzales, 33, to one felony count of arson to forest land for setting fires on Aug. 22, 2008, that burned more than 45 acres, according to a report from the Mendocino County District Attorney’s Office.

Two additional, identical arson counts against Soto-Gonzalez were dropped, although the court was allowed to consider them, according to officials.

Soto-Gonzalez, a Mexican national who has a Clearlake address, was represented by attorney Philip De Jong, who did not return a call seeking comment on the case.

The prosecution, led by Deputy District Attorney Damon Gardner, alleged that on Aug. 22, 2008, Cal Fire helicopter pilots spotted Soto-Gonzalez setting the fires in the Mendocino National Forest, northwest of Lake Pillsbury near Big Signal Peak.

US Forest Service and Cal Fire responded to the area to fight a wildland blaze that became known as the “Island Fire,” located on private property within the forest, according to the prosecution.

Cal Fire helicopter pilots dropped off fire crew members and made trips to get water to fight the fire, officials reported.

As they were making trips for water, the pilots noticed a smaller fire upwind from the original fire. The district attorney’s report said the pilots switched their priority to the second fire where, once over it, they spotted Soto-Gonzalez, who was wearing camoflage.

On another trip to fill the helicopter’s bucket with water, pilots discovered three more fires were burning close to the second fire. The report noted that as the pilots flew over the westernmost fire they again saw Soto-Gonzalez.

He reportedly was running west from the last fire and then was seen kneeling down by a brush pile and setting it on fire, according to the district attorney.

Soto-Gonzalez was reportedly forced down by the helicopter’s rotor wash and that allowed the pilots to positively identify him.

The situation resulted in the fire crew that the helicopter dropped off having to be removed from the area for their safety because the newly set fires began to surround them, according to the prosecution.

Gardner told Lake County News on Thursday that a Cal Fire officer arrested Soto-Gonzalez on a forest road adjacent to the fire area, a lighter in his possession. Once on custody Soto-Gonzalez confessed to starting the fires.

Soto-Gonzalez gave some reasons for his actions, “but it’s only speculation” as to why he set the fires, said Gardner.

A marijuana growing operation was reportedly located nearby.

The fire investigation determined there were three spots where a lighter had been used to set the fires, which burned 45.2 acres at a suppression cost of more than $175,000.

Soto-Gonzalez has remained in jail since his August arrest, said Gardner. During the trial the defense mentioned that Soto-Gonzalez has an immigration hold against him.

Although his legal status in the country is a question, Gardner said Soto-Gonzalez will serve his prison time and then be processed by the federal government for the immigration issue as soon as he is released.

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