SAN DIEGO — A federal grand jury Wednesday indicted a hunter who allegedly started the largest wildfire in California history.
Sergio Martinez, 34, was indicted on one count each of setting timber on fire and making a false statement to a federal officer. Each charge carries a maximum five years in prison.
The 2003 blaze, called the Cedar fire, killed 15 people, destroyed more than 2,000 homes and charred 273,000 acres from the mountains east of San Diego into the nation’s seventh-largest city.
The blaze began Oct. 25 in the Cleveland National Forest after Martinez became lost on a deer hunting trip and lit a fire at dusk, according to the county sheriff’s department. The fire, driven by Santa Ana winds, then swept through tinder-dry brush and trees.
On the night of the blaze, the Forest Service issued Martinez a misdemeanor citation for setting an unauthorized fire. He was released with a warning that he could face felony charges if people were injured or homes destroyed.
Asked what held up the indictment for nearly a year, Assistant U.S. Attorney Michael Lasater said officials had conducted “a thorough investigation.”
Jose Martinez, the Los Angeles-based lawyer representing the defendant, declined to immediately comment. Sergio Martinez could not be reached for comment. Martinez is to be arraigned Thursday in federal court, where a judge will decide if he should be taken into custody, Lasater said.
The indictment carries special allegations that Martinez’s actions caused more than $400 million damage and 14 deaths, including one firefighter. The San Diego Medical Examiner’s office later determined an unidentified man found in a drainage ditch was the fire’s 15th victim.
Martinez was severely dehydrated when sheriff’s deputies, responding by helicopter to a call of a lost hunter, found him waving from the top of a small mountain as nearby flames shot 10 feet into the air.
The indictment said Martinez lied about starting the fire, and prosecutors declined to provide details. Sheriff’s Deputy Dave Weldon told The Associated Press last year Martinez denied setting the fire, but then apologized. “He kept apologizing and looking at the fire,” Weldon said.
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