Community Members Feel Man's Employer Is Partially To BlameBy CBSLA Staff

RIVERSIDE (CBSLA) — An arrest has been made in the deadly 2019 Sandalwood Fire, which burned more than 1,000 acres in Riverside County, Cal Fire Riverside announced Monday.

Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez was arrested Saturday on two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing a fire that causes great bodily injury. (Cal Fire Riverside)

Antonio Ornelas-Velazquez was arrested Saturday on two counts of involuntary manslaughter and one count of unlawfully causing a fire that causes great bodily injury.

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“My mom’s home was burnt to the ground,” Samantha Johnson said. “She lost her dog, she lost all of her heirlooms, she had to figure out how to completely rebuild her life, and it was very hard.”

According to prosecutors, the Sandalwood fire was started Oct. 10, 2019 in Calimesa by a load of burning trash that was dumped next to dry vegetation by the garbage truck Ornelas-Velazquez was driving.

“It was the perfect storm of conditions,” Johnson said. “It was very dry vegetation, very dry winds, and he has this freak accident where the trash is on fire.”

The fire then spread from the burning pile of trash into the vegetation. By the time fire crews were able to get the blaze under control on Oct. 14, two people had died, 72 structures were destroyed and 16 others were damaged.

Many in Calimesa believe that Ornelas-Velazquez’s employer is partially to blame.

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“I heard that he was on the phone with his boss, and he asked, “Is this what I’m supposed to do?'” Johnson said. “And his boss confirmed yes.”

An attorney representing most of the victims in a lawsuit says it was CR&R’s corporate policy of profits over people that lead to the death of those two innocent people and the loss of irreplaceable property.

“The decision whether to risk the safety of innocent victims or save a truck should never have to be made,” attorney Steven Dhillon said in a written statement. “We will see that this heartless policy changes as a result of this terrible tragedy.”

CR&R did not immediately respond to a request for comment, but the company has previously said it takes safety seriously and grieved for the lives lost.

As for Johnson, she hopes they’re held responsible and that they improve emergency training for employees.

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“I think justice should be served, but I don’t think it’s this man’s full responsibility,” she said.