By Emmett Berg
SAN FRANCISCO (Reuters) - A worker at an illicit marijuana growing operation in California's Sierra Nevada mountains who admitted starting a 2014 wildfire that caused more than $6.5 million in damage was sentenced to more than six years in federal prison, authorities said on Wednesday.
Edgardo Fournier, 46, was sentenced on Tuesday in U.S. District Court in Fresno to six years and 10 months in prison for his role in a marijuana growing operation hidden in a remote canyon and for the fire he admitted setting.
That blaze sparked the so-called Nicolls Fire, which burned 1,680 acres of wildland and caused millions of dollars in damage to forest resources in the Sequoia National Forest.
Fournier, who is from Perris, California, signed a plea agreement in which he admitted being a worker at a marijuana growing operation. He pleaded guilty to drug-related charges and to setting timber afire.
He watered and tended 2,090 plants from April to July 2014, when he “willfully and without authority lit fires in the vicinity of the grow site with a pink plastic lighter,” according to court documents.
He lit the fires, Fournier told an investigator, because he feared that other workers at the site intended to kill him to avoid paying him, according to court documents.
The criminal complaint that led to Fournier’s charges indicated that a helicopter pilot engaged in firefighting activity noticed a man fitting Fournier’s description waving at the aircraft.
Fournier approached local residents two days after the fire started, the documents said, and told them he needed to hide from people who wanted to kill him.
The defendant was also ordered to pay restitution of more than $6.5 million to the U.S. Forest Service, according to court spokeswoman Lauren Horwood.
(Editing by Cynthia Johnston and Mohammad Zargham)