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Camarillo Man Cited in Santa Barbara Fire : Disaster: Teacher suspected he was responsible for backcountry blaze and turned himself in. He may be billed for the costs.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

A Camarillo schoolteacher has been cited for accidentally igniting a four-day wildfire in remote Santa Barbara County backcountry with a cigarette he smoked while rabbit hunting, authorities said Wednesday.

Richard Hanger, who turned himself in to fire investigators on Monday, will also likely face a hefty bill for the cost of battling the 3,500-acre blaze that at one point threatened a condor sanctuary.

“If I was a bum or something I wouldn’t have even gone in” to talk with fire officials, said Hanger, 50. “But I’m sick about this whole thing. I hear my name on the radio, and I feel horrible.”

Total firefighting costs are not yet known, but Santa Barbara County Fire Department officials said they expect the tally to top $1 million. A spokeswoman for the U.S. Forest Service placed the cost at more than $720,000.

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Under state law, people who set fires are required to pay the cost of fighting them. But actual court-ordered fines usually cover only a small fraction of costs.

Hanger, who teaches U.S. history and government at Thousand Oaks High School, said it dawned on him Sunday that he might have sparked the blaze as he watched news accounts.

“I almost had a heart attack,” said Hanger, a teacher for 27 years. “I just panicked.”

Anxious to find out if he was responsible, Hanger contacted Ventura County authorities, who put him in touch with Santa Barbara County Fire Department investigators.

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On Monday, Hanger took a fire inspector to Aliso Canyon--where Hanger had hunted rabbits since childhood--to retrace his steps before the fire.

Near the end of their walk, the pair paused where Hanger thinks his cigarette sparked a one-square-foot grass fire near his pickup truck just before leaving Saturday morning.

Surprised by the flames, Hanger said he stomped them out, covered the ashes with dirt, then doused the spot with five gallons of water.

Believing the fire was extinguished, Hanger said he and his hunting companion drove home to Camarillo with their limit of five rabbits each.

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“I put it out, and then I left,” Hanger said.

But after visiting the area on Monday, the investigator concluded that the large range fire began with the small grass fire that started from Hanger’s cigarette.

“He said, ‘This is where it started, Mr. Hanger. I’m going to have to issue you a citation,’ ” Hanger recounted.

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Fire officials said the embers may have smoldered in cow manure before being fanned by light winds and high temperatures.

“Our weather has been typically in the high 90s and low 100s with humidity in the single digit,” said Santa Barbara County Fire Capt. Andy Rosenberger. “Just a little bit of a breeze can pick up an ember and start a fire.”

Hanger said he does not smoke, but purchased the pack of cigarettes to smoke with his companion on the trip, partly to keep the bugs away.

“I’m totally embarrassed about it,” he said.

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About 600 firefighters fought the blaze, assisted by six air tankers and several water-dropping helicopters. It was controlled by Tuesday night, but crews were still on the scene Wednesday, raking through ashes for embers still burning.

For a time, the flames were headed directly for the Sisquoc Condor Sanctuary, but was halted about five miles away.

Karen Terrill of the California Department of Forestry said about 80% of the state’s wildfires are caused by accident or negligence.

Whoever caused the fire can be assessed the full costs of salaries, overtime pay, food and equipment use. And the sum can be prodigious: A single drop of fire retardant, for example, costs $800, she said.

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But typically, only a fraction of the amount billed by the state is collected.

Last year, the state recovered about $1.3 million from individuals who accidentally started fires, compared to hundreds of millions spent fighting the fires, she said.

Once a person is billed, Terrill said, it is up to the courts to decide how much and how long he or she will pay.

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Hanger is scheduled to go to court Sept. 1. He probably will not be billed for several weeks. A judge will decide how much of the estimated $1 million Hanger will pay.

“There’s no way I could pay that,” the teacher said.


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