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Leigh Hart: CalFire bill could kill Carousel Ranch

Posted: April 14, 2009 12:32 a.m.
Updated: April 14, 2009 4:55 a.m.
Editor's note: Late-breaking news Monday revealed that CalFire had changed its mind and rescinded its letter demanding payment from Carousel Ranch.

Reading the newspaper may be diminishing among those younger than 30, but our three newspapers are an integral source of news for my husband and me.

Growing up, my parents always had two papers delivered - one covering local events and the second offering everything else.

Reading the local news as a kid was especially gratifying because the articles featured people I knew or events that I was familiar with.

Over time my reading interests expanded as my knowledge of the world widened, but news of events at home are the inspiration for today's column.

The Signal's April 10 headliner, "Carousel Ranch told to pay up," immediately caught my eye because it dealt with a highly regarded nonprofit organization in our community.

The news that Carousel Ranch (provider of horseback therapy to children and young adults with disabilities) may have to pay the state $2.9 million for an accidental fire started near their ranch is shocking.

In fact, the attempt by the state to squeeze such an enormous sum of money out of a nonprofit organization is unbelievable!

The $2.9 million bill from the California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection (CalFire) was presented in a letter to the executive director of the ranch, Denise Tomey.

It stated that Carousel Ranch is responsible for the civil cost of fighting the 2007 Buckweed fire, even though the county District Attorney decided not to file charges against the boy who started the fire or Carousel Ranch.

In addition, the letter requested that the fee of $2.9 million be paid within 30 days.

The Buckweed Fire destroyed 21 homes and burned through a large swath of acreage in Agua Dulce, Canyon Country and Saugus.

The fire burned parts of Lombardi Ranch (including the Lombardis' childhood home), destroyed the ranch of Heads Up (another nonprofit horse therapy organization), and caused injuries to many who fought the blaze.

As with any fire in Southern California, the parched land and wicked winds created a perfect environment for a spark to ignite a fast-moving inferno.

In the case of the Buckweed Fire, the cause was not a mystery. This was not a fire begun by an arsonist or a machinery spark.

This was a fire that began when a young boy began playing with matches. He was the son of the caretaker at Carousel Ranch.

There were no Carousel Ranch students or personnel on the premises at the time of the fire, except for the caretaker's family.

The high winds turned a reckless activity into a calamity. I don't know why the boy, age 10, was playing with matches. I don't know what the parents were doing at the time.

What I do know is that children do play with fire. Ask a few firefighters - they may acknowledge that they played with matches at one time or another when they were kids. Fire is alluring.

Children may know the difference between right and wrong, but their judgments regarding the consequences of dangerous behavior are poor. The capacity for sound judgment develops with age, experience and knowledge.

The county prosecutors who decided not to charge the boy with criminal intent obviously took this into account.

As far as Carousel Ranch's possible financial liability, I would think that its insurance company would be responsible for some of the cost - maybe that's what the state was banking on.

It appears to me that the ranch is being punished, although CalFire insists that its intention is not punishment, but merely an attempt to recoup the cost of fighting the fire.

CalFire can recover the financial costs incurred if negligence or violation of the law is evident.

I have no problem with the state getting reimbursed for the cost of fighting fires in cases where malicious or careless acts by an adult are clearly identified.

However, the cause of the Buckweed Fire is neither. Obviously, CalFire believes that it has a case and Carousel Ranch has had to respond, consult its attorney, and worry about the viability of its organization. A fee of $2.9 million would bankrupt the facility and negatively affect the lives of hundreds of clients and their families.

Fortunately, Assemblyman Cameron Smyth agreed to send a letter to CalFire on behalf of Carousel Ranch. It is the hope of his office that CalFire will look into the matter more thoroughly or at least offer an appeals process.

Santa Clarita is the home of many local nonprofit initiatives. These are true grass-roots organizations where people from all walks of life and opinions come together to support a multitude of needs within our community. Carousel Ranch is simply one in many that has been embraced and supported by this community. Carousel Ranch develops the physical, social and psychological capacities of its clients in a manner that is enjoyable. It supports the families, provides internship opportunities for students and embraces the care of people and animals with respect and love.

The last thing Carousel Ranch needs in this time of economic downsizing is to be slapped with a $2.9 million fine! For those of you who support the work of nonprofits, give our state representatives a call and voice your concern.

Leigh Hart is a Santa Clarita resident. Her column reflects her own views and not necessarily those of The Signal. "Democratic Voices" appears Tuesdays in The Signal and rotates among several local Democratic activists.


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