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2 workmen, ranch face charges in Zaca fire

From the Associated Press

SANTA BARBARA -- Two men and a cattle ranch were charged Friday with felony crimes for allegedly recklessly starting a fire that has burned 375 square miles of wilderness in Santa Barbara and Ventura counties and injured 44 firefighters.

The Zaca fire was ignited July 4 by sparks from grinding equipment being used to repair a water pipe near Los Olivos in northern Santa Barbara County, authorities said.

It was 95% contained Friday after burning through 240,207 acres of rugged lands in Los Padres National Forest. Full containment was expected Tuesday.

Jose Jesus Cabrera, 38, of Santa Ynez; Santiago Iniguez Cervantes, 46, of Santa Maria; and Rancho La Laguna LLC were charged with four felony counts each. The men could face up to nine years in state prison if convicted, according to the Santa Barbara County district attorney’s office.

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The defendants also could be billed for the $114-million cost of fighting the fire, authorities said.

The men were not in custody, Senior Deputy Dist. Atty. Jerry N. Lulejian said. They were scheduled for arraignment Sept. 20 in Superior Court in Santa Maria.

The men were working at the ranch when the fire erupted, said Robert Sanger, an attorney for Cabrera. “We have two hard-working men who are out there on the Fourth of July in the heat and they’re trying to repair a water pipe so the cattle have a source of water,” Sanger said. “They take precautions. Despite their precautions . . . a spark escapes farther than anybody imagines. A fire started.

“In my view, this is an accident; it’s not a crime, let alone a felony,” Sanger said.

There was no telephone listing for the ranch in or around Los Olivos, and Sanger said it had not obtained an attorney in the case yet.

In recent weeks the fire came within a dozen miles of the wealthy coastal community of Montecito, but no homes were destroyed and no communities were threatened Friday.

Cabrera, Cervantes and the ranch were charged with three counts each of recklessly causing a fire with great bodily injury to three victims and one count of recklessly causing a fire of a structure or forest. The charges carry special allegations of great bodily injury to more than one firefighter, peace officer or other emergency personnel.

The charges involve two firefighters who suffered minor injuries when their water-dropping helicopter crashed in July, and a driver who broke both legs in July when his truck, which was used to carry and pump out portable restrooms, plunged 200 feet down a mountainside as he headed to a fire camp.

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Prosecutors also charged that the men and company were careless with a flaming substance, which is a misdemeanor violation of health and safety codes, and that they failed to secure a “hot work” permit, which would be an infraction of county and state regulations.


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