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Nonprofit wrongly targeted

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Posted: April 12, 2009 12:23 a.m.
Updated: April 12, 2009 4:55 a.m.
 

Add one belated casualty to the list of victims of the devastating October 2007 Buckweed Fire: Carousel Ranch.

Late last month the state of California, via CalFire, sent a $2.9 million bill to the charity in Agua Dulce that provides equestrian therapy for the disabled — the idea being that mastering horsemanship skills can improve strength, balance and self-esteem in physically and emotionally disabled children and adults.

Established in 1997, Carousel Ranch has worked wonders for clients struggling with cerebral palsy, mental retardation, autism, brain injury, stroke, learning disorders and emotional problems.

Now the state wants to take that all away by slapping Carousel Ranch with a $2.9 million fine for CalFire’s cost of fighting the Buckweed Fire.

There is no question that the inferno was a horrible tragedy; it destroyed 63 structures and damaged 30 more as it tore through 38,356 acres of brush and invaded our residential neighborhoods. At least one person was critically injured in the fire.

CalFire and other firefighting agencies threw their entire arsenals at it, including no fewer than 144 fire engines and five helicopters that dropped 409,100 gallons of water and fire retardant at an estimated cost to the state, at the time, of $2.135 million.

The U.S. Forest Service pegged its own cost at $5.81 million — and neither figure includes the cost of other emergency services such as evacuations, shelters or law enforcement.

Without question, “somebody ought to pay.”

But that “somebody” is not Carousel Ranch.

Carousel Ranch didn’t start the fire.

In a case of arson — whether willful or through gross negligence — California law authorizes CalFire to recover the cost of fighting a fire by collecting damages from the responsible party.

That is as it should be. If some jerk starts a fire that destroys homes and takes lives, he should pay.

But neither gross negligence nor willfullness applies here.

Carousel Ranch didn’t start the fire through negligence or willful misconduct. It didn’t start the fire at all.

Fire investigators determined it started when the young son of a Carousel Ranch caretaker who lived on the property was playing with matches.

The Los Angeles County District Attorney’s office declined to press charges in the case, effectively ruling it an accident. District Attorney Steve Cooley certainly never contemplated charges against Carousel Ranch.

After all, the fire wasn’t started by a Carousel Ranch employee.

It wasn’t started by a Carousel Ranch patient.

It wasn’t even started on Carousel Ranch property. It started next door.

If anyone was responsible for preventing the boy from playing with matches, it was his parents — not the organization for which his father happens to work, nor the organization that happens to be his father’s landlord (in both cases, Carousel Ranch).

If CalFire wants to send a demand letter to the boy’s father, fine. Good luck.

Seriously. It would no doubt bankrupt him, but it was his responsibility to keep his child under control.

It wasn’t Carousel Ranch’s responsibility. By sending a demand letter to Carousel Ranch, CalFire has selected the wrong target.

Is CalFire doing this simply because it is under the mistaken impression Carousel Ranch has a deeper pocket than the boy’s father?

Let’s hope not. Let’s hope it was an honest mistake — and that CalFire will immediately take corrective action.

We pay taxes — a lot of them — for many services, and none is more legitimate than taxation for public safety, which includes police and fire services.

It’s good to know CalFire tries to stretch our tax dollars by going after people who start fires — but it would be even better to know the agency’s going after the right parties.

CalFire can drag a wonderful local charity through the ashes in the weeks and months ahead, but it will be for naught. Carousel Ranch doesn’t have that kind of money.

Even if CalFire gets its act together and goes after the family, in the end, the “somebody” who will get stuck with the cost of fighting the Buckweed Fire will be us, the taxpaying public.

We urge you to support Carousel Ranch by becoming a donor or sponsor. Visit www.carouselranch.org or call (661) 268-8010 to find out how you can help.

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