VISTA (CNS) - Two men who started a fire that scorched 22 square miles of mountainous backcountry between Warner Springs and Anza-Borrego Desert State Park pleaded guilty Friday to arson charges.
Jesse James Durbin, 23, and Jeremy Joseph Ortiz, 24, will each be sentenced to six years in state prison at a hearing May 11.
Deputy District Attorney Terri Perez told Vista Judge Daniel Goldstein that a psychological evaluation of the defendants revealed that they intended to burn a guard shack at the Eagle Rock Training Center on the edge of the Los Coyotes Indian Reservation last July 21 but did not intend to burn the 14,100 acres consumed in the blaze.
Perez said the defendants' actions placed them in danger to the point they had to be rescued by firefighters. The defendants were also under the influence of alcohol, the prosecutor said.
The fire -- which cost about $15 million to fight --- left 18 firefighters with heat exhaustion, cuts, sprains, abrasions and other minor injuries. No homes were destroyed in the fire that took a week to extinguish.
Ortiz -- who had worked as a security guard at the training center -- was arrested Aug. 4, while Durbin already was jailed in an unrelated auto-theft case when authorities charged him with arson.
Both are members of the Los Coyotes Indian tribe. According to authorities, Ortiz admitted pouring gasoline at the guard shack and said Durbin lit the fire.
Authorities have not disclosed a motive in the case, but a Los Coyotes tribal member said Ortiz had been pressured to quit his job at the Eagle Rock Training Center, operated by a private firm on land leased from Los Coyotes and used for military training and film productions.
The Los Coyotes Band of Cahuilla and Cuopeno Indians, considered one of the poorest tribes in San Diego County, has for nearly 10 years been looking into building a casino in Barstow.
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