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Carousel Ranch told to pay up

Charity receives letter demanding $2.9 million in recovery fees for 2007 Buckweed Fire

Posted: April 10, 2009 1:35 a.m.
Updated: April 10, 2009 4:30 a.m.

A building in Canyon Country engulfed in flames during the 2007 Buckweed fire. Carousel Ranch was recently given a $2.9 million bill for the damages done by the blaze.


Carousel Ranch, a charity that helps disabled children through therapy on horseback, has been slapped with a $2.9 million bill for the cost of fighting the 2007 Buckweed Fire.

The California Department of Forestry and Fire Protection sent a letter to Carousel Ranch demanding compensation, the ranch's executive director, Denise Tomey, said Thursday.

The fire, which destroyed 21 homes in the Santa Clarita Valley, was started by a child who lived at the ranch.

"A letter of demand has been issued for the civil cost of recovery for cost of fighting the fire, which means it will go into litigation, so I can't elaborate any further on it," Daniel Berlant of CalFire said Thursday.

"It's not about punishing them for the fire. It's about recouping the cost that the state paid for the fire."

In November 2007, the county District Attorney's office decided not to file charges against the 10-year old boy who was playing with matches during high winds, touching off the blaze.

The Buckweed Fire ravaged more than 38,000 acres, mostly in Saugus and Canyon Country, in October 2007.

The boy's father, a caretaker at Carousel Ranch, still works at the Agua Dulce horse ranch, Tomey said Thursday.

In November 2007 Tomey had said the fire started about 30 feet outside the Carousel property.

Tomey said she was shocked when she received the letter on March 26, requesting that the fee be paid within 30 days.

The ranch is a nonprofit organization that provides therapy for more than 90 handicapped children through specialized interaction with horses.

"I'm hoping that it's reconsidered because we are truly not responsible for starting that fire," Tomey said. "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."

"That kind of money would bankrupt our organization and cause us to close," Tomey added. "That would be a shame for the children we service and services we provide to this valley."

After being contacted by Carousel Ranch, Assemblyman Cameron Smyth's office said it will attempt to help.

"We're going to take the letter Carousel Ranch sent us and we're going to, on behalf of Assemblyman Smyth, send a letter to CalFire asking them to look more into the situation and to find out if there is an appeal process for this fee," said Jarrod DeGonia, district director for Smyth, R-Santa Clarita.

DeGonia said Smyth's office will go through CalFire to determine the process for appeals, but first it will try to extend the 30-day deadline.

"It's an extraordinary amount, a huge fee for a nonprofit organization, especially when Carousel Ranch is claiming the fire started on a neighboring property, not on their property," DeGonia added.

Berlant said CalFire does not assign guilt. As the case goes into litigation, Carousel Ranch can present its case, he said.

"It's under the health and safety code that authorizes CalFire to recover the costs of suppression if there is negligence or violation of law," he said.

"Litigation allows somebody to give their case to the court system. We don't get to assign guilt; the courts do that." Nancy Pitchford, the founder and executive director of Heads Up Therapy on Horseback - a therapeutic treatment program for children suffering from conditions including autism and muscular dystrophy - said she won't pass any judgment on Carousel Ranch, even though the Heads Up ranch was completely destroyed and an employee severely burned by the Buckweed Fire.

"Anything like that, to any business of any kind, I'm sure will be a burden," she said of the $2.9 million bill.

"But I was not there, so I will not judge them. God loves us and saved us and our horses, and that's what I'm grateful for."



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