Four charged in connection with starting Tulare Country Blaze burning over 36,000 acres and forcing residents to evacuate

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Three men from the South Valley stood side by side for their first court appearance Thursday. (KFSN)

Three men from the South Valley stood side by side for their first court appearance Thursday.

They are charged with multiple felony counts, for allegedly stealing two brand new cars, and later, driving one of them, a dodge challenger to the Tule River Canyon, setting it on fire using gas as an accelerant.

That early morning car fire quickly spread to both sides of the canyon-and it took days before firefighters could begin to contain some of the pier fire.

Which burned more than 36,000 acres of forest service land, destroyed valuable utility infrastructure, and threatened the lives and property of many who live in the surrounding mountain communities.

"It's one of those areas where you drive through the area and you're thinking good grief, I hope we never have an incident here," said Tulare County Fire Chief Charlie Norman.

At its height, Norman says nearly 2,000 firefighters from around the state were battling the blaze.

The fire is now fully contained, and residents are back home, but officials here estimate damages and costs totaled $40 million.

"You are liable in the state of California for the damage that it results in whether or not you intended to burn a fire of that scope or not. In the eyes of the law, that doesn't matter," said Tim Ward.

Investigators with the California Highway patrol's auto theft task force said one of the suspects, 19-year-old Isiac Renteria, is from Visalia but worked for national car rental at the Sacramento airport.

They say that is where he and three others, including his cousin, stole the vehicles a few days prior to the start of the pier fire.

"During the investigation, it was learned that two vehicles were stolen from the rental company on the same day. The 2017 dodge challenger and 2017 Chevy Camaro. Both vehicles were taken from a secured parking lot," said Sgt. Chris Boudreaux

Officials say they do not know why the suspects burned the challenger and found the Camaro partially stripped in Visalia.

All four suspects are charged with aggravated arson, conspiracy to commit a crime, and unlawful driving or taking of a vehicle.

They face a maximum of 15 years to life in prison.
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