Three men hiked up a forest trail high above Glendora, lit an illegal campfire and then ran when embers driven by hot, dry winds ignited the 1,900-acre Colby Fire, a federal prosecutor told a jury today, but attorneys for two of the men said their clients are innocent of every allegation except building the fire.
Clifford Henry Jr., 22, of Glendora and transient Steven Robert Aguirre, 21, are charged with setting fire to timber, grass and underbrush in the Angeles National Forest by building a campfire; violating a fire restriction order by using a fire outside a recreation site in the forest; causing timber, trees, brush and grass to burn in the forest without a permit; and causing and failing to maintain control of the Jan. 16 blaze that damaged the national forest system.
The first count is a felony, the rest are misdemeanors.
The third suspect, 23-year-old transient Jonathan Jarrell, will be tried on the same charges later this month. His case was separated based on statements he made to investigators that possibly implicated his co-defendants.
When the trio hiked up the forest trail to spend the night on a ridge overlooking the city, they carried little more than cigarettes, a disposable lighter, a laptop computer, a notebook and a blanket, Assistant U.S. Attorney Joseph O. Johns told the jury.
"They knew conditions were too dangerous to have a campfire,'' the prosecutor said, adding that the men hiked high up the ridge "so their campfire could not be seen.''
The random spot was "just an expanse of tinder, chaparral and dry brush'' -- perfect conditions for a wildfire, Johns said.
After setting one campfire, which the men successfully extinguished, Henry Jr. and Aguirre built a second illegal fire in the dark, early hours of Jan. 16, while Jarrell slept, Johns said.
After Jarrell awoke and added paper from his notebook to the fire, "a gust of wind blew embers ... into the surrounding tender, dry grass of the Angeles National Forest,'' the prosecutor told the downtown panel.
The men managed to stomp out one fiery patch, Johns said, but another quickly ignited.
At that point, Aguirre, Henry Jr. and Jarrell "panicked and fled,'' leaving the wildfire "to the untender mercies of the Santa Ana winds,'' Johns said.
The three men were taken into custody after they were discovered by Glendora police hiding in a flood control channel, Johns said.
Bernard Rosen, attorney for Henry Jr., told the jury that he fully expects at least one guilty verdict against his client.
"You will find him guilty of building an illegal campfire,'' Rosen said, adding that the only question is if there would be any other verdicts against Henry Jr.
The attorney said that after the fire started, his client and the other two defendants "did try and put it out.''
Dominic Cantalupo, Aguirre's lawyer, told the jury much the same thing.
"There's not a lot in dispute,'' he said. "You're going to find Mr. Aguirre guilty of something. But he's not guilty of the charges the government has brought against him.''
Prosecutors said all three men admitted their roles in the fire during interviews with investigators.
The single felony charge carries a maximum of five years in prison, while each of the misdemeanor counts carries a prison sentence of up to six months.
The blaze in the Angeles National Forest consumed 1,952 acres, destroyed five homes and damaged 17 others while injuring six people, including five firefighters, according to the U.S. Forest Service. It also destroyed 10 outbuildings and damaged another.
—City News Service