Man ordered to pay $2.7M for starting NM wildfire

April 25, 2012 - 2:05 PM

LAS CRUCES, N.M. (AP) — A Texas man has been ordered to pay $2.7 million in restitution for burning used toilet paper that sparked a wildfire, scorching nearly 83 square miles of a national forest in New Mexico.

Rodrigo Ulloa-Esquivel of El Paso also was sentenced Tuesday to five years of probation and ordered to complete 200 hours of community service.

Ulloa-Esquivel, 30, in October pleaded guilty under a plea agreement to a misdemeanor charge stemming from the April 2011 wildfire. Two other charges in an indictment were dismissed in the deal.

The fire started when Ulloa-Esquivel was with friends near a campsite, and he lit some used toilet paper on fire to keep from leaving behind litter. High winds sent sparks from the burning paper into nearby brush, and Ulloa-Esquivel and his friends were unable to control the fire in the area known as the Guadalupe Ranger District.

The blaze eventually charred more than 53,000 acres in the Lincoln National Forest, through the Last Chance Canyon in Eddy County, N.M. It burned for several days and caused damage to four structures in the Sitting Bulls Falls Recreation area, according to U.S. Forest Service reports.

After Ulloa-Esquivel and his friends tried unsuccessfully to extinguish the fire, they left the area without calling the Forest Service or local authorities to report it, authorities said. Ulloa-Esquivel also admitted initially denying knowledge of the fire or that he caused it. He later admitted to U.S. Forest Service personnel how it started, authorities said.

Officials said the estimated cost to suppress the fire was around $2.3 million and the initial estimate to repair the damages to structures in the recreational area was $67,500.

Robin Poague, special agent in charge with the USDA Forest Service's southwestern region, said the country's national forests are among its most precious resources and every visitor has an obligation to act responsibly.

"As evidenced by this wildfire, careless acts can devastate our landscape, and individuals who commit those acts will be held accountable," she said.