Man Gets 24 Years for Starting Wildfire That Killed California Condors

Man Gets 24 Years for Starting Wildfire That Killed California Condors

A man who the authorities said started a wildfire in central California two years ago that killed 12 endangered condors has been sentenced to 24 years in state prison.

Ivan Gomez, 31, was found guilty in a California court last month of 16 felony counts related to the Dolan fire in Big Sur, including arson and cruelty to animals. His sentence was announced by Jeannine M. Pacioni, the district attorney for Monterey County, on Thursday.

The California condor is the largest land bird in North America. As of late 2019, there were 518 of them worldwide, including 337 in the wild, according to the National Park Service.

The Dolan fire eventually consumed nearly 125,000 acres and was not contained until New Year’s Eve. But it didn’t take the California authorities very long to find the fire’s architect.

Around the same time that park rangers first saw the Dolan fire cresting a ridgeline in the Los Padres National Forest on Aug. 18, police officers found Mr. Gomez throwing rocks at vehicles on Highway 1, the Monterey County District Attorney’s office said. He told the officers that he had started the fire at an illegal marijuana farm.

Fire investigators would later confirm the fire origin site that Mr. Gomez had described, according to the district attorney’s office. The officers who interrogated him also discovered that he was carrying lighters matching others found at the site.

An attorney for Mr. Gomez could not be reached on Thursday night, and officials at the district attorney’s office did not immediately respond to a request for comment.

Credit…Ventana Wildlife Society, via U.S. FIsh and Wildlife Service

In addition to killing 12 California condors, the Dolan fire injured several firefighters and condors. It also destroyed 10 homes, a condor sanctuary and a fire station in a national park. The authorities estimated the cost of fighting the fire to be nearly $63 million.

The California condor, a bird that has a wingspan of 9.5 feet and weighs up to 25 pounds, once ranged widely across parts of North America, according to the United States Fish and Wildlife Service.

But by 1982, the condor’s global population had fallen to just 23 birds. The remaining wild California condors were later put into a captive breeding program.

In 1992, the Fish and Wildlife service began reintroducing captive-bred members of the species into the wild. As of late 2019 the condor’s wild population was about twice the size of its captive one.

When the Dolan fire destroyed a Big Sur condor sanctuary, one of the birds it killed was Kingpin, the most dominant male in the local flock, according to Ventana Wildlife Society, a nonprofit organization that operated the sanctuary.

But Kingpin’s mate, Redwood Queen, and their chick Iniko survived, even though the redwood tree housing the baby bird’s nest was charred by flames. In December, after recovering for about a year at the Los Angeles Zoo, Iniko was returned to California’s central coast and released into the wild.

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