Garbage truck driver charged in Sandalwood fire that killed 2

A Calimesa man has been arrested in connection with a brush fire in Riverside County that killed two people and destroyed dozens of homes in 2019, authorities said. Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez, 38, was arrested Saturday and charged with involuntary manslaughter and unlawfully causing a fire resulting in great bodily injury, according to a spokesperson with the Riverside County district attorney’s office. After posting £75,000 bond, Ornelas-Velazquez was released Sunday, according to jail records.

The fast-moving Sandalwood fire erupted on Oct.

10, 2019, after the driver of a garbage truck dumped a “hot load” — a pile of burning trash — along the side of 7th Street near dried-out vegetation, Capt. Fernando Herrera, a spokesman for the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection, said at the time. Ornelas-Velazquez was operating that truck, authorities said.

Garbage trucks often haul a dangerous cocktail of combustible items — batteries, pesticides, paint — and it’s not unheard of for drivers to dump a simmering load, Herrera said at the time.

Two women who lived in the Villa Calimesa Mobile Home Park were killed when the fast-moving Sandalwood fire — named for a street near the mobile home park — swept through the neighborhood on Oct.

10, 2019. Hannah Labelle, 61, and Lois Arvickson, 89, could not outrun the flames that overcame the community and ultimately destroyed 74 structures.

Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez was charged with involuntary manslaughter and unlawfully causing a fire resulting in great bodily injury. (Riverside County Fire Department)

A declaration in support of the arrest warrant stated that Ornelas-Velazquez noticed smoke coming from his hopper while driving a trash truck for CR&R Recycling and pulled over to compact the burning load next to open brush.

A Frito-Lay truck driver and a second motorist stopped to tell Ornelas-Velazquez that the area posed a fire danger and warned him against dumping anything that was burning during a Santa Ana wind advisory, prosecutors said.

The fire ultimately burned 1,011 acres over four days before it was contained.

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