Wednesday, April 15, 2009

CAL FIRE drops demand for $2.9 million from charity

Carousel Ranch bill for Buckweed Fire goes up in smoke
CalFire rescinds its demand for $2.9 million in Buckweed Fire costs

State fire officials Monday backed down from their demand for $2.9 million from Carousel Ranch, a local children's-aid charity.

The change of heart came after local elected officials went to bat for the Agua Dulce organization, which was billed for the cost of fighting the October 2007 Buckweed Fire.

"This is fabulous news," said Carousel Ranch's director Denise Tomey minutes after she heard CalFire was rescinding its letter on Monday.

"That means we are no longer being held responsible," Tomey said. "We've been very (stressed) over what something like that could to do our organization."

Carousel Ranch is a charity that provides therapy for more than 90 handicapped children through specialized interaction with horses.

The organization received a letter from The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection on March 26 demanding $2.9 million to cover the cost of fighting the Buckweed Fire.

Tomey called upon state Sen. George Runner, R-Lancaster, and Assemblyman Cameron Smyth, R-Santa Clarita, for help, as she believed the ranch was not responsible for the fire.

Following an earlier meeting with the representatives, a CalFire spokeswoman confirmed Monday evening the department would rescind its letter.

The fire destroyed 21 homes in the Santa Clarita Valley and ravaged more than 38,000 acres, mostly in Saugus and Canyon Country, in October 2007.

It was accidentally started Oct. 21 by the 10-year-old son of a ranch employee.

In November 2007, the county District Attorney's office decided not to file charges against the boy, who was playing with matches during winds as high as 70 mph.

"We were closed, we had no control, it wasn't a child from our program, it wasn't our employee and it wasn't on the property," Tomey said Thursday.

Tomey said in 2007 the fire's origin was 30 feet off the property.

A CalFire legislation official met with Smyth's Deputy Chief of Staff Kevin O'Neill and Runner's Deputy Chief of Staff Will Smith in Sacramento on Monday afternoon.

O'Neill and Smith presented a letter jointly signed by Smyth and Runner requesting CalFire look deeper into the situation and extend the 30-day deadline to pay the $2.9 million.

"Basically, based on preliminary reports, so-called letters of demand are sent to any party that we in good faith believe may be potentially liable for starting a fire. This is done in efforts to recover taxpayer dollars that are spent in suppressing fires," said Janet Upton, a CalFire spokeswoman.

"In this particular case, information that would typically be brought forth during the litigation process was brought to light early in a letter that the ranch sent to elected representatives Senator Runner and Assemblyman Smyth. In response to their inquiry to us, the letter of demand will be rescinded."

Smyth said CalFire was quick to respond to concerns.

"We just had the meeting ... and obviously, we conveyed that going after a nonprofit like Carousel Ranch was definitely not the best course of action," he said Monday. "They agreed, to their credit."

"When a nonprofit has made such a tremendous commitment and done so much for the community ... for them to be caught in the middle of something like this is not right and we're happy we could help out," Smyth said.

Runner said while he supports keeping individuals accountable for creating an expense to the state, that "was certainly not the case here."

"I think in their view, rightfully so, on paper it kind of met some criteria they had. But once they understood the issue and the facts, they saw that it was the right thing to do," Runner said.

Tomey said she is grateful to Smyth and Runner's office for their help.

"That's certainly (the outcome) we were hoping for," she said.

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Previous related post:
Charity gets $2.9 million bill from CAL FIRE

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